The greatest political danger confronting our world is the growing antagonism between the United States and China.
The basic cause of this perilous antagonism is the steadfast determination of United States political elite to keep the U.S.A. as the world’s single dominant (aka hegemonic or imperialist) superpower. The ideology of imperialism requires a plausible enemy to justify the enormous economic, political and military sacrifices necessary to maintain global dominance. The necessary enemy was formerly supplied by the Soviet Union. The current occupant of the enemy role is China.
China is indeed a rising political and economic power. According to the World Bank:
“Since China began to open up and reform its economy in 1978, GDP growth has averaged almost 10 percent a year, and more than 800 million people have been lifted out of poverty. There have also been significant improvements in access to health, education, and other services over the same period.”
Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China has become more assertive in international affairs. However, the aspirations of Chinese political elites remain relatively constrained: escaping any form of foreign control; becoming a modern, affluent and reasonably egalitarian society; and operating as the regional political, economic and cultural leader.
Chinese elites recognize — in contrast to their U.S. counterparts — that global dominance for their country is neither possible nor particularly desirable.
Moreover, there are clear structural limits on Chinese economic growth. The most important structural limit is the rapid aging of the Chinese population due to the nation’s population control policies. In 1980 China had eight working-age persons for every person of retirement age. If current demographic trends continue, the working to retirement age population ratio in China will be 2:1 by 2040, a ratio that severely constrains economic progress.
The United States’ determination to remain globally dominant is both unrealistic and exceedingly dangerous. U.S. global hegemony was founded upon transitory circumstances: the destruction of all possible rivals in World War II and, later, the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union. In a world with shared technology, educated populations and energetic governments, stable hegemony by a single country is simply not feasible. And the temptation to use military superiority as a means of sustaining a fleeting hegemony invites global catastrophe. If our world has a future, it must be via environmental collaboration, economic cooperation and shared political power.
The ancient Greek historian Thucydides attributed the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) to the irrepressibly conflict between a rising power (Athens) and a reigning power (Sparta). Some scholars describe the confrontation between China (a rising power) and the United States (a reigning power) as an example of this “Thucydides Trap.” There may be a tendency for violent conflict between rising and reigning powers, but warfare between China and the United States is not inevitable and must be strenuously resisted. Cooperation between China and the United States is absolutely essential to resolve climate change, world health, sustainable growth and many other world problems. The alternatives to such cooperation are nothing less than horrific.
The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft has developed a practical program for improving relations between the United States and China. Outlined in the institute’s piece “Toward an Inclusive & Balanced Regional Order: A New U.S. Strategy in East Asia,” these are recommended American initiatives:
- Reaffirming the One-China policy and reducing militarization of the Taiwan Strait.
- Forsaking military dominance or control of the sea or airspace in the Western Pacific.
- Supporting the emergence of a unified and non-nuclear Korea.
- Abandoning low-yield tactical nuclear weapons and embracing a no first-use nuclear policy.
- Restoring public health ties with China.
- Negotiating a climate change accord with China that goes beyond the Paris Agreement.
- Separating concerns about human rights in China from geopolitical disputes.
- Encouraging regional diplomacy between China and other Asian countries to deal with climate change, pandemics, economic matters, weapon proliferation and other issues.
- Reforming the World Trade Organization to expedite dispute resolution.
- Improving human rights in the U.S.A. to protect Asian Americans, immigrants from East Asia and everyone else.
Unfortunately, most of these sensible initiatives are probably beyond the purview of our dominance-obsessed political elite.