Oct 13, 2021 05:17 PM

Opinion: U.S.-China Geopolitical Contest Likely to Last a Decade or Two

The U.S. and China can find ways of cooperating with each other. Photo: VCG
The U.S. and China can find ways of cooperating with each other. Photo: VCG

“One thing is certain. The geopolitical contest that has broken out between the U.S. and China will continue for the next decade or two. Although President Donald Trump launched the first round in 2018, it will outlast his administration.” I began the English edition of this book with these words. I wrote them in 2019 as this book was first published in New York in early 2020. Sadly, my words proved to be accurate. Trump lost the election in 2020. Joe Biden was elected president. Yet, despite the election of a new president, the geopolitical contest between the U.S. and China continues.

Many Chinese readers of this volume must be puzzled. Why is the U.S. persisting with its geopolitical contest against China when China isn’t trying to either threaten or damage the U.S.? The goal of this book is to answer all the big questions that Chinese readers may have in their mind about this big geopolitical contest. Indeed, one key goal is to explain the deep structural forces that drove the U.S. to launch this contest.

One such structural force is easy to understand. The U.S. has got used to being the number one power in the world. Indeed, the U.S. has been the number one economic power since 1890 when it overtook the U.K. Americans believe that they should always be the number one economic power. Biden revealed this sentiment when he said in March that China’s surpassing the U.S. is “not going to happen on my watch.” Against this backdrop, we can understand why the U.S. considers China’s rise to be a threat. China’s continued economic success will eventually make the U.S. economy number two in the world.

China did not consciously try to make the U.S. number two in the world. Instead, China’s goal, especially after Deng Xiaoping launched his Four Modernizations program in 1979, was to improve the well-being of the Chinese people. China has been spectacularly successful in this area. In 1979, almost 800 million Chinese lived in poverty. Today, almost none do. One consequence of improving the livelihoods of the Chinese people is that China’s per capita income has grown. As this per capita income grows, so too does the size of China’s GNP. Indeed, in 1980, in purchasing power parity terms, the U.S. economy was 10 times larger than that of China. By 2014, the gap had become smaller. In nominal market terms, America’s economy is worth of $21 trillion in 2019. But most economists believe that even in nominal market terms, China’s economy will become bigger within a decade.

When U.S. economy becomes number two in the world, it will be a huge psychological shock for the U.S.. Why will this be a shock? The answer is truly shocking. Americans believe that they have a free and open society where anything can be dictated. Yet, if any U.S. politician were to say that the U.S. should prepare itself for becoming number two, he or she would be crucified. It’s absolutely forbidden, politically speaking, to speak about the U.S. becoming number two.

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The reluctance to become number two is clearly the main reason for the U.S. launching its geopolitical contest against China. However, the U.S. made a very big mistake when it launched this contest against China. It did so without first working out a thoughtful and comprehensive long-term strategy. Many Chinese will be shocked to hear this. It is crazy to launch a contest without a strategy. However, if any Chinese reader doubts that the U.S. lacks a strategy, they should know that the man who confirmed this to me that the U.S. lacks a strategy is one of U.S.’ greatest living strategic thinkers, Henry Kissinger. He is very famous in China. He was the man who first improved relations between the U.S. and China by making a secret visit to China to meet Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai in July 1971. Indeed, in July 2021, we will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of Kissinger’s visit to Beijing. In this book, I describe the one-to-one lunch I had with Kissinger in New York in March 2018 when he confirmed to me this lack of strategy. The lack of a U.S. strategy toward China has also been confirmed by the erratic actions taken by the Trump administration. For example, when the Trump administration launched its trade war against China, what were the key goals? The Trump administration claimed that the goal was to reduce the trade deficit the U.S. had with China. Yet, as this book explains carefully, trade deficits are not due to unfair trading practices by China. They are a result of an imbalance between savings and investments in China, as documented in Chapter 3: U.S.’s Biggest Strategic Mistake.


The Chinese edition of Mahbubani's book “Has China Won?”was released in September in mainland China.

If the real goal of the Trump administration was to weaken China, this has failed. In 2009, the size of China’s retail goods market was $1.8 trillion while that of the U.S. was $4 trillion, more than double. By 2019 (after three years of Trump’s trade war), the size of China’s market was $6 trillion, more than trebling, while that of the U.S. only rose to $5.5 trillion, an increase of less than 1.5 times.

Clearly, the trade war of the Trump administration has failed. Indeed, Biden has himself confirmed that this trade war has failed. In July 2019, during the U.S. presidential election campaign, he was asked whether he would keep the tariffs of Trump. He answered “no.” Indeed, he gave a comprehensive critique of Trump’s trade policies.

Since Biden has personally confirmed that Trump’s trade war has failed, the logical thing he should have done when he became president in January 2020 was to remove all of Trump’s tariffs against China. He failed to do so. The main reason why he didn’t do so is that he did not want to appear weak to his fellow Americans.

There is one important point I need to make here. Biden is a very nice man, personally. Indeed, he was very nice to China when he was vice president of the U.S. from 2009 to 2016. He hosted President Xi Jinping when Xi visited the U.S. in February 2012 in his then capacity as vice president. Biden was also hosted by Xi when he visited China as vice president in August 2011. I have no doubt that Biden will be much more polite in his comments about China than Trump administration officials like former vice president Mike Pence or former secretary of state Mike Pompeo. However, even if Biden is more polite, the geopolitical contest between the U.S. and China will continue for many structural reasons spelled out in this book.

Yet, this book also concludes on an optimistic note. The last chapter of this book explains how the U.S. and China can find ways of cooperating with each other. This last chapter builds on the wisdom contained in the Chinese concept of Yin and Yang.

It is possible for “opposite forces” to live in peace with each other. Hence, this book concludes with five “non-contradictions” between the U.S. and China. Here are two concrete examples. Firstly, if the primary goal of the U.S. government is to improve the well-being of the American people (as it should be) and if the primary goal of the Chinese government is to improve the well-being of the Chinese people (as it is), then both the U.S. and Chinese government can succeed in these goals by cooperating with each other.

Indeed, one key point made in this book is that the U.S. government must make a major choice soon: should it focus on preserving the “primacy” of the U.S. in the world or should it focus on improving the livelihoods of the American people? Important consequences flow from this choice: If the U.S. makes “people” its priority, it should spend less on military. Many thoughtful Americans have actually said that the U.S. is spending too much on military. Fareed Zakaria is an American journalist working at CNN and the Washington Post. He noted that Lloyd Austin said recently that for the past 20 years, the U.S. had been focused on the Middle East while China had been modernizing its military. “We shall maintain the edge, he noted, “and we’re going to increase the edge going forward”. Zakaria was absolutely right when he said, “What Austin calls U.S.’ ‘edge over China is more like a chasm. The U.S. has about 20 times the number of nuclear warheads as China. It has twice the tonnage of warships at sea, including 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, compared with China’s two carriers (which are much less advanced). Washington has more than 2,000 modern fighter jets, compared with Beijing’s roughly 600, according to national security analyst Sebastien Roblin. And the U.S. deploys this power using a vast network of some 800 overseas bases. China has three. China’s defense budget is around $200 billion, not even a third as large as that of the U.S.” These huge American military expenditures don’t make sense. They harm, not benefit, the American people. This book does two things. It explains the structural reasons why the U.S. spends so much on military. It also explains why this is unwise.

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Similarly, another area where there is a “non-contradiction” between the U.S. and China is in the area of common global challenges, like Covid-19 and global warming. This book does not discuss Covid-19 because it was written before Covid-19 broke out in early 2020. Yet, Covid-19 has only confirmed one key point of this book: the common global challenges faced by the U.S. and China make cooperation even more important. A simple boat analogy will explain why cooperation is important. Before globalization, when 7.8 billion people lived in 193 separate countries, it was as though they were living in separate boats. Hence, if one boat caught Covid-19, it would not spread to other boats. However, after globalization, our world has shrunk and 7.8 billion people no longer live in 193 separate boats. Instead, they live in 193 separate cabins on the same boat. Covid-19 has taught humanity that all 7.8 billion people live on the same boat. It spread to all corners of the world within months.

Indeed, if all 7.8 billion of us are now living on the same boat, we can no longer just take care of our cabin only. We must take care of the boat as a whole. Indeed, if a fire breaks out in one cabin of our common boat, the stupidest thing we could do is to argue about who started the fire. Instead, we should set aside the arguments and focus on putting out the fire first. This analogy makes it clear that it was very unwise of the Trump administration not to focus on the common challenge of fighting Covid-19. Instead, since the Trump administration was focused on the geopolitical contest, it focused on blaming China, rather than cooperating with China to fight Covid-19. The sad result of all this is that over 550,000 Americans were killed by Covid-19, compared to just over 4,600 Chinese. Many lives could have been saved if the U.S. had cooperated with China instead.

Climate change is another common challenge. If global warming gathers pace, all of humanity will suffer. No one country can stop it. All countries in the world must cooperate, especially the two largest economies, the U.S. and China. It’s good that Biden has returned to the Paris Climate Accords and is convening a climate summit in April 2021. Many countries in the world have cheered Biden’s decision to focus on fighting climate change. They would cheer him even more if he presses the “pause” button on the geopolitical contest with China and instead works with China to fight climate change. This book therefore tries to explain both how this major contest started and how both countries can find a way out of it. I hope that Chinese readers will support the choices recommended in this book.

Kishore Mahbubani is a professor and founding dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at National University of Singapore. The article was the preface for his book “Has China Won?” (Chinese edition) which was released in September in mainland China.

The views and opinions expressed in this opinion section are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial positions of Caixin Media.

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