Crossroads for the Sole Superpower
- Snow White’s stepmother, The Queen and a Beauty Known Throughout The Land, had a moment when her magic mirror advised that she was no longer the fairest of all. In response, she took out a contract on Snow White.
Snow White’s stepmother, The Queen and a Beauty Known Throughout The Land, was once advised by her magic mirror that she was no longer the fairest of all. So she took out a contract on Snow White. The Queen ended up dead: she fell, as Disney characters do, done in by her own fears.
What a lost opportunity, because things really could have turned out better for the Queen. Were she more secure in her power, she might have viewed Snow White, with her great work ethic, sweet temperament, and yes, beauty, as a really useful ally and asset for the monarchy. She blew it though, by assuming the worst and giving in to fear. “Who’s the fairest of them all?” is a shallow question, because everyone knows beauty is more than skin deep. Worse, her motive was clearly paranoid, since the mirror’s unwelcome answer took her immediately into a murderous rage.
Americans are feeling, at best, insecure in asking, “Isn’t China trying to take us over ?” Granted that China, unlike Snow White, is neither innocent nor harmless, but the question is still sufficiently shallow and paranoid that whenever I’m asked, I feel like the magic mirror. Clearly, and in response to shallowness, power comes from more than a growth rate and a current account surplus – for example, a culture that inspires and a track record of working to benefit the greater good. I think people who know this ask the China question to solicit reassurance on that front. As to a tinge of paranoia, the question attributes to China, vis-à-vis the USA in particular, both motives and capacity for conflict far beyond what exist in reality. How do I know this? Go ahead and call me names, but I have done my time in China, rescuing people from political prisoner status as well as working and socializing with Communist Party members – and here is my best summary of the real attitude of China on the question of wanting to take over the USA: We “Don’t want to, don’t need to, kinda busy, and respect and need the USA way too much.”
But I guess we need a more detailed, nuanced and practical conversation about what China’s growing power means for us. Especially after Hu Jintao’s visit last week. Even my local weatherman was calling upon President Jintao (sic) to Stop Destroying The Planet.
So, here goes:
They don’t want to. China views the USA –not themselves – as best qualified for the post of global cop and architect of global trade and policy frameworks. They want us to promise that we’ll keep doing it. Granted, China has questioned whether the US Dollar should remain the world’s reserve currency. Given the amount of USD denominated debt that the Chinese own, and are continuing to buy, (thankfully, because no one else is), that is a defensive, rational move. If the USD falls through the floor – which, since the Fed is printing money like raffle tickets, isn’t an unimaginable scenario – China will be stuck with worthless bonds. The USA is rational in wanting to keep our debt denominated in our own currency. It’s not hostility and threat; it’s reasonable, economically sensible dialog.
Backing out of the reserve currency issue and up to the arguably more profound level of culture and belief, China is not interested in a unipolar world. To refer to the deep value system of the Chinese, the role of humanity is not to work for an external God, so that Good can defeat Evil; but to learn how power flows between the two morally neutral powers of Yin and Yang. A sole power – whether it’s the USA or China – is an anomaly, a force for imbalance, a recipe for unsustainability.
They don’t need to. China has a great deal of access and influence already. Formal, bilateral relationships between China and the USA incorporate countless active agreements and working groups in military, monetary, academic, and commercial spheres. Informal relationships involve tens of thousands of enterprises operating in both nations, with millions of employees, hundreds of thousands of passport holders of both countries residing in the other. If China were foolish and aggressive enough to want to attack the US economy, they could have cut off our imports, stopped buying our debt or our airplanes, frozen USA company assets in China…etc. etc. There’s so much at stake and so much ballast that it’s just not smart to be that obnoxious.
They’re kinda busy. There are 14 nations on China’s land borders, including 4 nuclear powers (Russia, Pakistan, North Korea, and India) a variety of difficult non-nuclear neighbors such as Burma, Vietnam and 5 of the 7 ‘stans. (Tajik-, Kyrgyz-, Kazakh-, Afghani-, and Paki-). China also has the cultural challenge of working with Tibet’s Lamaists and Xinjiang’s Muslims, and the agricultural challenge of feeding five times the population of the United States with a lot less arable land. Horrific environmental degradation coexisting with the need to create continued employment growth has China on a tightrope of trying everything to restore water, air, and land to healthy levels while simultaneously growing productivity and addressing corruption. Then there are the energy and commodity security needs brought by development: meaning that China’s administrative burdens in Africa, Central Asia, the Middle East, and South America are proliferating. Japan and Taiwan – both recent enemies/irritants – loom just off the coast. Why, stretched so thin already, would China escalate a conflict with America?
They respect and need us too much. The USA is the world’s ultimate safe haven, source of wealth, font of creativity. We have low population density, clean air, fresh water, fertile land, an ocean on either side and a grand total of two nations on our borders. (One of which is a also a huge, stable and peaceful nation with clean air, fresh water, and fertile land and even lower population density). We’ve got legal, financial, political, and educational infrastructure to support innovation and commercialization of ideas: even if our systems get clogged or co-opted at times, at least they’re sturdy enough to withstand adjustment. While the Chinese know that we have tremendous treasures, they also think we do a pretty good job managing them. In the course of millennia of Chinese governance, they have gained almost no experience whatsoever with low population density, high-trust societies, institutions free of corruption, or a relationship of transparency between the state and those it governs. Simply put, the Chinese know that it’s one thing to manage a large factory of relatively unskilled workers, through precision and consensus in Wenzhou, Laos, or Brazil. It’s another thing entirely to let people do their own thinking and trust in the outcome.
They can’t: If ‘take over’ means ‘to gain a large degree of control over America’s domestic and or international affairs?’ see above. America’s economy is 3 times the size of China’s – meaning their per capita GDP is 1/15th of ours. The capitalization of America’s markets is 3000 times greater than China’s. If you’re still convinced that China is an invasion threat, note that by all accounts, China’s military technology is 25-40 years behind the United States, and they need all the army and navy they’ve got for energy, commodity and defensive security.
Understandably, we’ve got anxiety about our waning superdominance. But the Chinese are just doing what they need to do to pull themselves into security and affluence. Part of what they need is for the USA to stay the dominant power in the world. Snow White has earned a place at the table, and shown that she’s perfectly capable of taking care of herself. What’s a Superpower To Do? Pass the salt.
Image courtesy of Disney.