Let me try once more:
Imagine that you are one of two Co-Presidents of a large and complex corporation. You are both very smart and very effective in your different styles. There is jealousy between you. Both of you aspire to lead the corporation. Sometimes you fear and detest each other. Your Co has risen rapidly in recent years, and now seems to be threatening your status. Some subordinates support you, others your colleague, while others straddle the fence, as they fear and feel dependent on both of you.
Sometimes you imagine you can dislodge the other, but she/he’s too strong. Much as you feel negative about your Co-President, you see that she/he contributes greatly and that the corporation is more successful with her/him, than without. You see that you are interdependent in certain ways.
The bottom line is that you are forced to co-exist.
The corporation is the world. The Co-Presidents are the US and China. We cannot dislodge China, already equal to the US in economic power, already deeply engaged in trade and development with many other countries all over the world.
Regardless of our justified frustrations with human rights, stealing of intellectual property, currency manipulation; regardless of our zeal to promote democracy vs authoritarianism; regardless or our fear of “Communism;” regardless of dozens of other grievances, the reality is that we are both here to stay. No other country comes close to either of us in all the markers of global dominance.
This is terribly frustrating because we disagree on so much. It is painstaking to achieve agreement on critical global issues, such as global warming, climate change, nuclear safety, and other major issues.
Nevertheless, regardless of all this, it is clear that the future of the world for decades to come depends on what each of us does or doesn’t do in terms of global needs and development, in terms of global security and global leadership. If we can find a way to cooperate, the world will be better off. It we do not, the scenarios are potentially devastating, including the possibility of a 3rd World War.
Many of my friends disagree with my views regarding China, feeling China is most definitely out to get us, out to destroy the US, to create a world dominated by China, to destroy our way of life and everything we hold dear.
I disagree. China only wants the respect it deserves and wants a prominent seat at the global table.
But regardless of whether my friends are right, or I am right, our attitudes and behavior will be determinative in whether one or the other scenario turns out.
Given the reality or co-dependence, wouldn’t it be better, isn’t it obvious, that some form of managed cooperation between the two superpowers is the right way to go, the only way to go?
What do I know? I’m no expert, but I have been all over China. I have worked there and I have lived there. I have made more than 30 trips. I studied the economic development of China for a year at the University of London. I am a continuous student of China, as I see understanding this country and how it will affect the future of this world as perhaps the most critical determinant of global peace and advancement for generations behind me.
For a more studied examination of all the issues surrounding this major global problem and opportunity, please do refer to this very balanced view in a superb book published just earlier this year, available on Audible also.
Bergsten argues that critical to our sustaining our co-equal status is for us to work on our own house–education, discrimination, violence, polarization, poverty and inequality, and more. I agree.
The United States vs. China, C Fred Bergsten, 2023, a distinguished economist and founder of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, and policy adviser to administrations.
3 thoughts on “The US vs China”
Dale, your co-CEO construct is an excellent analogy. I largely agree with you and offer only two areas of comment.
The first comment is on the dangers presented by US politics to this already strained relationship. The Economist magazine has an excellent China-focused podcast titled “Drum Tower”. If you are not already a subscriber to it, I heartily recommend it. In a recent episode the Senior Editor of the magazine (one tough, well travelled, street-smart old bird) recounts her first visit to China since the pandemic. She was stunned by the increase in militaristic, anti-US, attitudes in China since her last visit. Her most chilling comment is to the effect that there is no lack of aggressive patriotism in the US during an election cycle. Sadly, anti-Chinese sentiment is the flavor de jure in Washington these days and few politicians want to be seen as soft on China. China is far from innocent in so many fields but there is a significant risk that cool and logical minds will not prevail in our dealings with China and we could find ourselves in a cycle of unending escalations.
The second comment I would make concerns Chinese islands and maritime activity. China has clearly over-stepped any modicum of rules here and some reasonable compromise needs to be found. In structuring a reasonable compromise here we need to come to the realization that one of the main drivers of this behavior is defensive in nature. In his excellent recent book, “The New Map”, Daniel Yergin describes the Chinese concerns here. He notes that the Chinese military feels (likely correctly) that the US would shut down maritime routes that China relies on in the case of a military conflict. Specifically at issue are Chineses oil imports, which are huge in magnitude and would cause the Chinese economy to collapse if interrupted. You would think (incorrectly) that the US would be sensitive to Asian oils needs, given the fact that the US embargoing Japanese oil imports as one of the major causes of WWII, but we in the US tend not to study history. We need to make Asian shipping lanes strongly neutral areas, perhaps in exchange for a companion concession from China in respect of Taiwan and or a nuclear arms treaty.
Our current path towards a high-speed collision with China is a dangerous high-stakes poker game that needs to be de escalated with some thought and care.
Wow, great added comments! Thanks for those insights. I agree. Regardless of justified fears and criticism of China, the US political attitude at this time is not helping. It is escalating and motivating some of the Chinese behaviors you mention. We need to accept that we cannot dislodge China, and we must find a way to cooperate. Of course we cannot easily agree on some things, but we can start to negotiate, instead of only criticizing and threatening.
Thanks, Dale. The Japanese oil embargo’s implications for current Sino-US relations has a deeper, more-troubling, layer that is also applicable here. Christian-focused extremists in the 1930s were strongly moved by Pearl Buck’s book, “The Good Earth”. The prevailing feeling–fed by the book–was that China was ripe for conversion to Christianity and that the US could help in this endeavor. FDR–in a style similar to the current freezing of Russian bank deposits–had frozen Japanese bank assets after their invasion of China. This was a very popular move in the US, owing to the Chinese sympathies created by the popular Buck book.
In a wise move aimed at preventing escalation, FDR left explicit orders, however, that Chinese monies should be freed by the US Treasury to pay for oil exports to Japan. Whilst, FDR was out of the country Dean Acheson (then at the Treasury but later to become a US Secretary of State) disobeyed FDR’s orders and refused to allow the Japanese deposits to be used to pay for US oil! The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor within weeks and, within 24 hours of the Pearl Harbor attack invaded the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia) to secure an alternative source of oil.
The first moral of the story is that political machinations, particularly machinations regarding oil, can result in disastrous consequences.
The second moral of the story is that your perceptions of another party (either perceived friend or foe) can be wildly incorrect. FDR fancied himself as a bit of an “old China hand” as his grandfather Delano had extensive dealings as part of the (gasp, but true!) opium trade. He put his money of Chiang Kai Sheck to unify and defend China from Japanese aggression. Chiang was an opportunistic carpet-bagger who–together with other family members–converted to Christianity in order to curry favor in the US and continue to receive US aid. Purportedly, the US sent more funds to Chiang than we spent on the entire Manhattan Project! The rest of the world was not as fooled as the US public was, however. Churchill thought FDR was crazy for backing Chiang and a popular English radio series was constantly poking fun of the US posture by introducing a weekly character that went by the name of “Generalisimo Cash My Check”.
The third lesson here is one I alluded to in my earlier post: Americans tend not to read history. If you want to read the whole story and see the fully documented footnotes highlighting the points that I make above check out the book, “The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia” by James Bradley. Bradley is a well-know and scholarly author best known for his book “Flags of Our Fathers” which was made into a movie of the same name. His companion book to “The China Mirage” is also highly recommended to parties such as yourself that have an interest in Asia. The companion book is “The Imperial Cruise: A secret History of Empire and War”.
In short, the US has “screwed the pooch” in Asia on numerous occasion and if we continue our overly bellicose stance towards China we are likely to be doing it again….