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Should the U.S. Fear the Rise of China? A Former Ambassador’s Take

The United States and China seem to be in a race of sorts, competing for economic influence, military power, and political control.  Although the U.S. is still in the lead, China is not far behind, hot on its heels. Should the U.S. fear that China will soon overtake it?

In a discussion he had with my international affairs class, the Honorable Winston Lord, former U.S. Ambassador to China and Assistant Secretary of State under Bill Clinton, shared why he strongly believes that the rise of China will prove to be no match for U.S hegemony.  He used what he called his “Eight Fearless Statements on China” to commend China for its astounding rate of growth, but also to assert that there exist contradictions in the nature of this growth which will ultimately allow the U.S. to maintain its long-held supremacy.

Lord’s “Eight Fearless Statements” are as follows:

Statement One: “The Chinese economy is an unstoppable juggernaut.”

The rise of China is the most astonishing economic rise in history. It has had 10% annual growth for over 35 years, its per capita income has increased from $200 to $6000, and it has lifted 500 million people out of poverty. Not to mention, the Chinese rank #2 in the world in GDP,  #1 in exports, #2 in imports and #1 in foreign reserves.  They are rapidly gaining technology for future growth, expanding in their construction of infrastructure, and encouraging more university education.

Statement Two: “The Chinese economy will hit brick walls.”

Its population of 1.4 million distorts statistics: although it ranks #2 in the world in GDP, its per capita income remains ranked #92, nestled between Bosnia and the Maldives. In addition, China has major shortfalls when it comes to acquiring natural resources and providing its citizens with clean water and energy. According to Lord, “The changes in Chinese cities will take your breath away…that’s the problem.” The pollution in Chinese urban centers is among the worst in the world and poses a huge risk to the health of its growing population. Lord asserts that this growing population, in addition to suffering from pollution related health issues, will inevitably endure a greying crisis. In two years, its labor force will begin to decline. Currently, the ratio of working to retired is five to one but in less than twenty years, this ratio will go down to two to one. However, Lord states that the root of the issue is the Chinese’s lack of ingenuity. He uses the example of the iPhone, saying that the Chinese are good at building the popular phones, but not inventing them.

Statement Three: “China’s military is growing and becoming an ominous threat.”

The Chinese defense budget is equivalent to the next twelve Asian countries combined. The country has made upgrades to its nuclear program, major advancements in space, and has built the world’s largest army. The growth of its navy has allowed it to further intimidate its neighbors in Southeast Asia and also complicate U.S. defense strategy. In addition, it is beginning to use unconventional military tactics in combating U.S. strategy including destroying U.S. satellites and engaging in cyber warfare.

Statement Four: “Chinese military power is grossly exaggerated.”

China has fourteen neighbors (the most in world) and is forced to address numerous territorial disputes between groups with cultural, religious and historical animosities toward each other. The U.S. on the other hand shares a border with only two nations, both of which are its allies, and two oceans. Additionally, the U.S. has a military budget four times that of China and a large lead in technology, weapon systems and combat experience.

Statement Five: “Their political situation is remarkably stable.”

China’s leaders have defied history; they have sustained rapid economic growth while giving their citizens little political freedom.  Although there have been small pockets of unrest, they have been for the most part contained. The middle class and graduating students, who currently bear exceptionally high rates of unemployment, have accepted the basic deal of the party:  “Make money or don’t make trouble.” The combination of rising living standards, satisfying people, nationalism, and sweeping censorship and repression suggest that the party is in firm control.

Statement Six: “However, Tiananmen Square can be right around the corner.”

Even by Chinese official count, there are five hundred major political demonstrations per day. These demonstrations are prompted partly by humanitarian aspirations for greater freedom but largely by people’s discontent with health issues caused by pollution, land grabs by local governments, the safety of food, and ethnic unrest. Since there is no rule of law, independent court system or freedom of the press, the people’s only modes of dissention consist of either taking to the streets or expressing themselves through social media—which is becoming the major agent of discord. Because of this, China has spent more money on internal surveillance than it does on its formal defense budget, showing that,  “…even though China may have swagger abroad, it has paranoia at home.”

Statement Seven:  “A rising China is supplanting American influence in Asia and throughout the World.”

China’s remarkable growth and decisive actions pose a sharp contrast to the inefficiency and indecisiveness of democracies in the West. Some countries around the world are being seduced by China’s mix of capitalism, socialism and political control. Its economic influence is growing and is becoming the prime trading partner for almost every country in Asia. In addition, the country is forming economic ties with Latin American and African nations by making investment deals that have no strings attached on human rights or the environment. Furthermore, its gigantic market is so attractive that businessmen, newspapers, and universities are extremely reluctant to attack or resist Chinese censorship to repression.

In regards to Chinese political influence, its navy is increasingly clashing with neighbors in disputes over surrounding water and islands. Its UN Security Council veto and mounting influence in international trade organizations is allowing it to protect its commercial links with nasty regimes around the world and actions proposed by the international community against them.

Statement Eight:  “A limited and challenged China is no match for the U.S.”

China’s political system and defense of malicious regimes around the world makes Chinese soft power “an oxymoron.” Its short list of strong allies, which consists mainly of Pakistan and North Korea, lessens its appeal to other countries looking to make military alliances. Territorial disputes and other questionable activities are driving other countries closer to the U.S.

It is only in the economic realm that China can quite possibly match the United States. In terms of every other index of power, China cannot compete. America’s superior military might, technological advancement, entrepreneurial spirit, better demographic tendencies, and new energy trends like shale, will mean further growth for America but a brick wall for China.

When asked how he would sum up these contradictions on the Chinese scene, Lord said this:

“When I think of China and its problems, I think of a Chinese pilot with a plane full of passengers. The pilot is like the leadership of China and he announces to his passengers, ‘We have good news and bad news: The good news is, we are way ahead of schedule. The bad news is, we are lost.’ If they don’t fix their problems they can be lost and loosing altitude in the next decade. “

So, should the United States fear the rise of China, or welcome it?

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