The “new world order” espoused by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama assumed that if the world’s major powers welcomed China as a major player in global affairs it would become a well-behaved member of the international community. Unfortunately, the assumption was wrong.
China has made clear that it has its own agenda and will pursue its objectives aggressively, regardless of what others think. So much for all the post-Cold War optimism about changing China’s behavior.
China’s immediate goal is regional mastery, achieved by driving the U.S. out of the western Pacific. Chinese ships and planes have harassed American ships and planes operating in international waters and airspace to achieve this goal – despite the risk of a collision and a possible military confrontation.
And despite its dubious territorial claims in the South China Sea – including some rejected by the United Nations’ International Court of Justice – China has continued to dominate its region and infringed on territorial claims of some of its neighbors, including Vietnam and the Philippines.
In addition, China has applied its self-righteous policies with muscle-flexing to advance its Silk Road Initiative and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
The Silk Road Initiative (also known as the One Belt, One Road Initiative) is an ambitious plan to build a $1.4 trillion network of modern trading routes connecting China and parts of Asia, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa with new high-speed trains, roads, ports, airports, pipelines and telecommunications.
The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, headquartered in Beijing and led by China, opened in 2016 and has made $4.4 billion in loans for infrastructure projects in the region. The bank fosters closer financial ties between China and neighboring countries, making them less reliant on financing from America and the West.
All this is possible because China has rejected its long-professed principle of noninterference in the policies of other nations. Clearly, the government has a plan for a sphere of influence. There are even reports that the Chinese government has offered payoffs to politicians outside China to buy their support.
How should the U.S. respond to China’s actions? We could throw up our hands, accept a wide Chinese sphere of influence and back away from international involvement. But such a radical step is not likely to yield stability. Moreover, a Chinese sphere of influence would threaten U.S. interests and traditions.
Instead, the U.S. could and should compete with a plan for uniting the Anglosphere, those English-speaking nations once part of the British Commonwealth. This could be the American answer to the Silk Road – an alternative trade association of nations with generally consistent legal codes.
Most significantly, the key to successful U.S. competition with China is innovation – a word now employed as a cliché. But aside from Facebook and other social media advances, which have a value that exists only as an abstraction, the U.S. has fallen behind the scientific vanguard.
As I see it, America needs a Sputnik moment – a wakeup call like we had in 1957, when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite to orbit the Earth, named Sputnik.
Determined to catch up with the Soviets, U.S. schools put an increased emphasis on science, technology engineering and math (now abbreviated as STEM) education, and the federal government began offering loans to help students go to college. All that catapulted America into world leadership in science and technology.
We can do this again. If we can get at least 10 percent of our population to be well-educated and working in the STEM fields we can pass by China just as we passed by Russia in the late 1950s and 1960s. If Americans can make scientific breakthroughs – like customized medical care based on genome mapping, high-speed maglev rail travel, and new types of communication networks – we can change the economic calculus.
Today China regards its neighbors as peripheral. In time, this will draw hostility. A United States that bestrides the globe as a cultural hegemon is still seen as benign by most people. That is an advantage. The significant disadvantage is a lack of American vision, an uneven game plan shaped by the unpredictable features of the free market.
In the course of competition lies a potential for war that both nations want to avoid. Competition could spill over into conflict, despite caution exercised by the parties. Assertive powers can sometimes push the limits of acceptable influence.
It remains to be seen whether the unilaterally created air perimeter zone in the South China Sea represents that kind of action. So far the move is an annoyance leading to regional repudiation, but it is not a cause for war. Managing expectation may not be easy, but it will become the linchpin for international equilibrium.
Several recent books on this U.S.-China theme have concluded with varying arguments. One side argues the “rising power” will see the value in war as justifiable; another contends an uneasy truce is the likely end point.
Clearly, nuclear weapons enter the calculus as the colossus that impedes escalation. My crystal ball remains hazy, but I do believe cool heads will prevail and the facile claims about war just over the horizon have a distinctly hollow ring to them.