With China it’s unsettling enough that for the first time since the end of World War II our worldwide hegemony is under challenge. However that’s just the beginning. As we’ll see, that change is coupled with technological and economic factors that intensify both risks and upsides.
We need first to be clear that the challenge of China is real. We have had other challenges in the past, most notably from the USSR, but none have had the economic might to back them up. This time we’re talking about an economy that by some measures is already larger than ours. Those others look puny in retrospect, although the Russian collapse is dangerously seductive. According to Bob Woodward, the Trump people were convinced that China was just like Russia, and the trade wars would cause a complete collapse in the same way. When Xi said that the US is the barrier to Chinese national success, he was just restating Trump’s declaration that he would destroy the Chinese economy. That of course didn’t happen, and the result was a policy that ultimately produced nothing. Whether we like it or not, we simply don’t have that power. The Chinese are not going away as an economic, technological, and military force.
At the same time it is equally important not to get hysterical about Chinese competition. It’s strange how we periodically become obsessed with the idea that some centrally-organized economic system is going to leapfrog us by running things in a way that we can’t. That happened in the fifties with the USSR (hard to imagine now) and in the eighties with Japan. In reality the US economy succeeded by reinventing itself many times over, in a way that others did not. For China, it is historical fact that state-run enterprises have been corrupt disasters, and the current economic miracle got its impetus from an unintended burst of local free enterprise. Xi’s consolidation of control is no miracle cure. China is a competitor with strengths and weaknesses. As one recent paper put it, China is not ten feet tall.
If we play to our own strengths, the worry is not that we’re going to be outcompeted by the Chinese (or undermined by Chinese stealing our secrets). It’s that we won’t succeed in creating a workable framework for international competition, and we’ll all lose.
We begin with the most basic of risks. We’ve now had many years of Pax Americana, and people forget that history shows that world-power peace is the exception—not the rule.
The reason we’ve had peace is not human progress, international institutions, or even the rise of democracy. It’s the threat of mutually-assured destruction. And however much we may want to believe that all-out war is obsolete, that’s in fact a technology issue.
We can be specific. Much has been written recently about hypersonic missiles, that would fly low at many times the speed of sound and be virtually impossible to detect by radar. That sounds like a whole new arms race, but there’s actually no point to it so long as the balance of terror remains intact. That we’re talking about it at all means we’re not so sure. Reagan’s old “star wars” anti-missile shield was never more than an electoral fantasy, but now there’s plenty of current technology that’s relevant: networks of satellites for detection, AI for decision-making, precision targeting for lasers. China already has a nominally-defensive, satellite-linked system that enables ballistic missiles to be used against moving targets (e.g. US carriers in the South China Sea).
A missile shield would be enormously destabilizing—North Korea could defeat the US in minutes. (It’s interesting that as long as the system was going to be ours, we never thought seriously about what it meant!) Who knows when or if something similar could be real. However the world has been surprised many times by revolutionary changes in the technology of war (Vikings, Mongols, gunpowder, nuclear weapons).
We can’t assume peace; we can’t dictate the world order; we can’t wish away the image of a world trapped in a ruinous and deadly competition for dominance. An encouraging fact is that everyone is much better off not living in such a world. However for now we’ve chosen to divide the world into no-holds-barred competing camps. Avoiding that division requires an act of creation—establishing a workable framework for cooperation and competition. There are many examples of countries that failed such a challenge with disastrous consequences. That’s our challenge here.
The first step to progress is to recognize that just as the risks today are higher than one might think, the potential rewards are also. There’s actually quite a lot to say about the upside, although in the last decades it has been hard to see.
Why is that? To repeat the obvious, the working classes in the West have been hit by two simultaneous body blows: globalization and technology. The result was dramatic, as shown by the following chart:
Globalization has been going on forever, but China’s sudden economic development produced a major hit. For technology the effects have been not only dramatic but accelerating. Thomas Philippon’s recent book has a chart comparing highest valuation companies over the past six decades. For the decade of the 1970’s the five highest valuation companies collectively were responsible for 2.4% of total employment. For the decade of the 2010 the corresponding figure was down to .4%. The bedrock upwardly-mobile manufacturing jobs are going away, as we continue toward a world where highly-skilled product development is the issue, and production is not. That’s true for obvious software enterprises like Facebook, but also for pharmaceuticals, integrated circuits, and many other areas. And it’s getting worse. AI puts a whole new class of jobs at risk, and electric cars (for example) will be much simpler in both manufacturing and maintenance.
Thus far it has been convenient to blame everything on China, with the consequence that both political parties are promising to bring back the good old days once we stare down the evil Chinese. (On the left a 2018 paper by Susan Houseman is cited everywhere to support this position, though it’s actually about weakness in the US manufacturing sector!) That mindset is dangerous on two grounds: it’s a kind of scapegoating that gets in the way of rational action, and it obscures other serious problems that need to be addressed. To get past that we need to discuss national prosperity and population welfare as separate issues.
For prosperity the key point is that China has actually turned a corner in its effect on the rest of the world. Although in aggregate terms China remains a very poor country (number 108 in per capita income, far below Mexico for example), the country is so large that its new middle class now buys enough to be a positive driver for the rest of the world economy. Even with the current market access restrictions, China is the largest national market for Mercedes-Benz and a major market for film industries from everywhere. The balance of payments deficit was reduced by half under Obama. For the EU, more export-oriented than we are, the effect is even more pronounced. (Intellectual property theft was also down under Obama.)
What this means is that, as opposed to the situation in the past, China has the potential for transforming itself from a drain on the world economy—producing more than it consumes—to the opposite. Raising the living standards for a billion people is an enterprise with potentially many benefits for everyone concerned. Nothing says that’s going to happen, but the difference is real. The current situation is no longer dictated by the poverty of China, it is instead an expression of the relationship with China as it stands. How do we make things better? Well, if we want China to play by the rules, we need better rules. As for motivation, growth in the West means growth for them (and, whether we like it or not, success for the ruling party).
The precondition for progress is establishing appropriate conditions for trade, that is to say a notion of fair trade which is comprehensive and up-to-date. The comprehensive part means we need to cover many items that are not currently included, including labor conditions, environmental issues, international standards for taxation. There is the potential for trade policy to become a vehicle for raising living standards worldwide. Stated simply, we’ve had globalization for the rich; we need globalization for everyone else.
There are of course no guarantees. Some elements, such as environmental issues, may be clear areas of common interest. Labor conditions will be more difficult. Details of market access will need to be worked out. It’s important to have everything on the table. It is particularly important that these are not rules imposed by us on others but norms of behavior for everyone in a common enterprise.
That difference is important in any kind of negotiation, but it is of particular importance for China. We don’t talk much about it, but China experienced some of the worst of Western imperialism extending well into the 20th century. That shared history makes Xi’s nationalism easy. If we want to get what we want, the last thing we should be doing is pretending it’s still true.
What Trade Rules Won’t Fix
Just as China wasn’t responsible for all problems, fixing China (even in the best case) won’t fix everything. Two points in particular should be emphasized. First, the kind of national prosperity we’ve been discussing thus far says little about personal welfare. People are still going to lose jobs both from ever-accelerating technology changes as well as remaining international competition—regardless of fairness. We’ll still be stuck with the prevailing inequality in society. We’ll still have all of the dislocations that will result from the economic transformations with climate change. Those are our domestic problems to solve.
Blaming China has made it possible to ignore that reality. Until recently in fact the prevailing ideology was that there is no additional problem of population welfare—the private sector would do it all. So for loss of good jobs the only issue was globalization, and the only means to address it were tariffs and tax cuts. Four years of a deficit-funded bubble with huge tax cuts to business did almost nothing for real wages or upward mobility.
Currently there are outlines of a solution. Particularly with the transitions required by climate change, there is no shortage of work. With the increases in corporate profit margins and high-end incomes there is no shortage of money—but workable taxation is a big issue. The public sector needs to put all that together: to see that the necessary work gets done and the population is supported with a national infrastructure that includes education at all levels, healthcare, so forth. It’s a work in progress.
The second point to make is that we have tacitly assumed we will maintain our national competitiveness. While we can see what has been successful in the past, there is no guarantee it will continue in the future. That isn’t theory. We just spent four years fighting science, demonizing foreigners, and favoring existing companies over new entrants. All of that hurts. It’s our job to play to our strengths.
Parallels with Climate Change
With that we return to the first issue—national prosperity. For that we want to stress parallels with what’s happening for climate change.
With climate change we’re also presented with a very strong common interest, but a non-trivial task in breaking that down according to individual national interests. As a country we haven’t thought much about that, since the national dialog has been primarily about getting our own act together, with the assumption that all the others just have to do their jobs too. However the reality of the situation is that we in the US have twice the per capita CO2 production of any other major emitter in the world,
and we in the West are almost 100% responsible for the level of CO2 currently in the atmosphere. The vast portion of humanity is going to have to sacrifice for our benefit, and it’s non-trivial to define acceptable justice.
Nonetheless the Paris agreement shows that with good will it’s possible to make progress. It will require continuing work, with more commitment from the developed world, and also with a mechanism for follow-through on commitments (in the absence of any such system today). But thus far the strength of common interest seems motivation enough to keep it going. It’s worth noting that the Montreal Protocol to ban CFC’s (and preserve the Ozone Layer)—one of the most successful efforts at international cooperation ever—also proceeded as a series of successively more demanding steps:
So it’s no surprise—and no cause for panic—that the current Paris goals don’t yet get as far as we need to go.
The parallel with China is precise. To keep the world economy sane and growing, everyone needs a stake in the game. In practice it needs to be negotiated between the West and China with at least some account taken of the interests of the rest of the world. But the issue is less a resolution of differing national interests than a recognition of the magnitude of common interest. One can even argue that the climate discussions are a necessary prelude to the broader economic discussions that need to take place.
The WTO seems the appropriate vehicle for negotiations, although its capabilities need to be extended to deal with the broader definition of fair trade. Before Trump’s election all parties expected such discussions would begin—including of China’s continuing special status as a developing country. Instead we got a repudiation of all international rules, in favor of an imagined omnipotent USA. We’re now going back to the game with the doubled leverage of allies beside us, but with an adversary who views us (particularly after January 6) as weaker and less reliable. What’s more we’ve spent four years strengthening the militant anti-western side of the Chinese Communist Party. Certainly there’s a job to do.
It may seem strange to put such emphasis on the WTO since “Bill Clinton let China in the WTO and there was nothing we could do about the Chinese assault on American jobs.” That truism is actually an example (among others) of what you might call bipartisan revisionist history (the left and right united against the center). In fact the main issue raised with China’s behavior has always been currency manipulation, which was in no way permitted under WTO rules. And as the job loss chart (from earlier) makes clear, the loss of American jobs was a phenomenon of the George W. Bush presidency—when we were too busy with the Iraq war and the financial crisis to press our case about anything else. The WTO is what we make of it; the vast majority of US WTO cases have in fact succeeded. For now it’s the best game in town.
Issues for Today
As a last topic, we want to be clear that we are in no way minimizing the seriousness of the immediate issues that divide the US and China. One short list makes that clear:
– Hong Kong
– Islands in the South China Sea
– Regime-incited nationalism
The first point deserves special comment, because it shows how high the stakes can be. On one side it is a matter of Chinese national pride, instilled by state propaganda for every school child. On the other it is not only a matter of US national commitment, it’s also critically strategic. As one example, Taiwan is the home of TSMC—the worldwide leader in IC manufacturing technology. Every new iPhone has an TSMC processor. (This example also shows we can’t solve global supply chain issues by just assuming we’ll bring it all home!)
Other articles have talked about scenarios for de-escalating this complicated situation. We’re not going to go through those here, but it is nonetheless worth saying a few words about how each of the issues fits with the strategies we’ve just discussed.
The Uighurs and Hong Kong are issues that the Chinese view as internal matters. Outside of China we can attempt to exert pressure by economic threats, but we’re in no position to change that point of view. Four years’ worth of dictates have instead made it worse–a matter of sovereignty versus capitulation. Ideally by bringing China into a broader realm of international standards for behavior, we can attempt to make both—and particularly the Uighurs—a different class of issue: what it means to belong to the international order. Hong Kong is the harder issue, because the threat to the national control is bigger. However it’s easier to think about compromise once the sovereignty isn’t the main story.
The South China Sea is a national security question. More than two-thirds of Chinese trade comes via the South China Sea. China, like us, wants complete control of its immediate strategic environment. We after all have the Monroe Doctrine. Thus far we’ve taken the worst possible approach, asserting US control of the seas for any purpose we choose. That’s going to be hard to walk back, but the only way to do it is by making freedom of the seas a matter outside of national whim, perhaps linked to some kind of regional agreement. It won’t be easy, but we can at least dial down some of the immediate pressure.
Regime-incited nationalism is the usual face of fascism. We heighten it by continuing to act as an imperialist power—asserting that it is our decision whether to continue to allow Chinese economic development. We have limited ability to change the issue, as it is a tool the regime uses to maintain its power. However, the more contacts there are and the less rabid our own vocabulary, the better the chance to cool it. It’s worth noting that in the Nazi era, most Germans justified Nazi aggression by a belief that Germany had been purposely shoved aside.
Finally we return to Taiwan. The only thing you can say is that it’s clear how much the issue means for both sides. If cooperation is necessary for continued prosperity, then both sides need to find a way to save face. That’s what we were doing for decades. Trump and Pompeo were part of the change, but it was probably happening on Chinese side anyway. The only way out is to strengthen the motivation for sanity. For that, common interest (with a united West) is always better than military threats. Even today, the impediment to invasion is more economic than military. International institutions strengthen both the carrot and the stick—you’re giving up more and making retaliation more comprehensive and certain.
All that being said, we end by again emphasizing the parallel with climate change. Climate change is a pending catastrophe that is forcing the world to come together in a more closely-coordinated way than ever before. As with climate change, the China-US relationship constitutes a critical issue that can only be resolved by strengthening international frameworks for both cooperation and competition. The world can be a better place, or we’ll all face the consequences.