Herbert London: The U.S.-China Relations

Feb 28, 2018

It was part and parcel of the “new world order” espoused by Bush and Obama that a China integrated into the organizational structure of global affairs would not challenge the status-quo. Yet try as Washington has, China has its own agenda somewhat impervious to post-Cold War optimism.

China’s immediate goal is regional mastery, achieved by driving U.S. out of the western Pacific. Beijing has harassed American ships and planes operating in international waters and airspace. Despite dubious claims over the South China Sea and a Hague Court Ruling against Chinese regional rights, China has continued to dominate the region and ignore sovereign nations, e.g. Vietnam and the Philippines. It applies its self-righteous policies with muscle flexing to advance its Silk Road Initiative and Asian Infrastructure. China has also rejected its long-professed principle of noninterference in other nations policies recently offering payoffs to politicians outside of China. Clearly the government has a plan for a sphere of influence.

How should the U.S. respond? Acquiescence is one response, albeit the acceptance of a sphere of influence is not likely to yield stability. European history offers only periods of stability between regional conflict. Moreover, a sphere of influence would threaten U.S. interests and traditions.

The U.S. could and should compete with a plan for uniting the Anglosphere, those English speaking nations once part of the commonwealth. This would be the U.S. answer to the Silk Road, a trade association with wealthy nations whose legal code is generally consistent across the board.

Most significant, the key to competition with China is innovation, a word new employed as a cliché. However, aside from Facebook technologies, whose value exists as an abstraction, the U.S. has fallen behind the scientific vanguard. As I see it, America needs a Sputnik moment, a wakeup call that arouses entrepreneurial spirit and the desire to consider STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) related activity.

Customized medical care based on genome mapping, mag lev rail travel at 1000mph, eye communication networks (beyond words) are the sort of breakthroughs that could change the economic calculus. But to innovate, a portion of the population must be well trained (10 percent?). Egalitarian ideas will not stand the test of time in the face of Chinese competition.

A China, as the Middle Kingdom, 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 casus belli. 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 enters 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.

Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research,  a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org

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