I’ve recently read and listened to a number of interviews and stories about Harvard scholar Graham Alison’s recent book “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?“
The book catalogues China’s present and future rise as a great economic and military power, and describes 16 similar cases in history, with some resulting in war, and others peace. As the blurb helpfully explains:
“Today, as an unstoppable China approaches an immovable America and both Xi Jinping and Donald Trump promise to make their countries ‘great again,’ the seventeenth case looks grim.”
China is changing very rapidly
While it’s very fashionable to refer to the growth of China’s GDP as an “objective” measurement of the changes taking place there, there are other measures that I think make the point even more clearly, like this very cool graphic showing the growth of Chinese metropolitan rail systems. You can fudge GDP numbers, you can waste money keeping state-owned enterprises afloat, but if used to be hard to get across Nanjing and now it’s easy to get across Nanjing, that’s going to be a meaningful difference in the lives of Nanjing’s residents.
Likewise the widespread deployment of high-speed rail in China, despite high-profile accidents, manifestly increases the speed with which Chinese people can traverse their country, in a concrete way that national steel mill or semiconductor factory output doesn’t capture.
Of course, past performance is no guarantee of future results. Maybe single-party rule works better for small, industrializing economies than large, industrialized ones. Maybe the lingering effects of pollution will retard Chinese growth or lead to rising crime like the US saw in the aftermath of our introduction of lead into our children’s environment. Maybe Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era will be bad Thought instead of good Thought.
China doesn’t scare me
None of China’s achievements bother me in the least, and I don’t think they should bother you either. As far as I can tell, China isn’t responsible for any of the actual challenges facing the United States:
- China didn’t make the United States pass tax cuts in the early 2000’s, apparently-permanently squandering a first-in-a-generation budget surplus;
- China didn’t make the United States squander trillions in wealth and thousands of lives invading Iraq;
- China didn’t make the United States attack Muammar Qaddafi and thrust Libya into anarchy;
- China didn’t make the United States permit an enormous buildup in fraudulent mortgage assets, and it didn’t force the United States to keep our insolvent banks in private hands instead of nationalizing them;
- China didn’t make the President of the United States deliberately omit unconditional support for Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty in his first speech to our treaty allies;
- China didn’t make the United States withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership;
- China didn’t keep the United States from responding to a foreclosure and unemployment crisis with the kind of overwhelming effort that would have been required to quickly restore stability and growth;
- China isn’t keeping the most productive areas of the United States from building more affordable housing, forcing people into less-productive industries in more-affordable communities;
- China isn’t keeping the United States from building out rural broadband;
- China isn’t keeping the United States from reforming our patent and copyright laws;
- China isn’t keeping the United States from restoring the affordability and accessibility of our institutions of public higher education.
In Bill Clinton’s first inaugural address he said, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”
To adapt his aphorism, there’s nothing wrong with America that hasn’t been caused by what’s wrong with America. Whether America is rich, strong, and a leading member of an international order based on the rule of law, or a poor and marginal player in a world dominated by Chinese interests isn’t up to China. It’s up to us.
So it’s not China I’m scared of.