Monday, April 15, 2024

Can America Lose to China?

Author: Kishore Mahbubani

Affiliation: the Asia Research Institute (ARI) at the National University of Singapore (NUS) 

Organization/Publisher: The National Interest

Date/Place: July 1, 2021/ USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article 

Word Count: 5125


Keywords: China’s Rise, US hegemony, American Ignorance of China, New Battlegrounds, and the Delusion of China’s Threat


In this article, Kishore Mahbubani argues that the US may lose its strategic competition against China by ignoring the most ancient geopolitical base: “know thine adversary.” Most Americans—officials and academicians—do not really know China, having a kind of absolute strategic self-satisfaction, as they imagine America as an open country with natural advantages compared to “authoritarian China”. They also assume that their strategic competitor is the Chinese Communist Party, not a four-thousand-year-old civilization. All of this makes them believe that American democracy would eventually triumph. The author seeks to refute the American claims that portray China as a “threat to the US and the world” by presenting a non-Western perspective of China’s rise and what exactly China wants. In the first part, the author responds to US allegations that China poses “a challenge to our security, to our prosperity, to our values across a range of issues”, as the US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said. The author argues the exact opposite. First, American prosperity has helped push the Chinese economy to prosper, which became larger than its American counterpart by 2014. American prosperity was and is a favorable motivator for the Chinese, not an obstacle. Second, China does not pose a threat to America’s security, as it does not threaten to invade it, China’s armed forces are very far from American soil, it does not threaten a nuclear strike against America where the latter is twenty times more than China in terms of the number of nuclear warheads, the US defense budget is three times more than its Chinese counterpart, and China does not have military superiority over the US in important areas such as the Middle East. In short, there is a huge military gap between the two powers in favor of the US. Third, China does not pose a threat to American values, as China is not interested in projecting its ideology to America or the world, as the Soviets did. It is interested in rejuvenating its civilization. Even when China becomes the top economic power in the world and replaces America, it will not be interested in “exporting its model” as the Chinese do not believe that someone can become like them, and they are confused if someone tries to do it, contrary to the way Americans view themselves. Americans claim the opposite. This is an excellent example of America’s complete ignorance of its opponent. Beijing does not aim to make the world safe for autocrats, as the popular American discourse claims, as it does not attach importance to the pattern of other countries when it deals with them, whether they are democratic or autocrats. What is important to China is the effectiveness of cooperation and the mutual benefit. This is what America itself does (contrary to what it claims), as it cooperates with Saudi Arabia despite its absolute distance from democracy. In the second part, the author defines what China wants, as its goal is to improve the lives of Chinese people and raise the per capita GDP (currently 10,000 USD for 1.4 billion people, compared to 65,000 USD for 380 million Americans); if it succeeds in reaching 17,000 USD, its economy will become larger than its American counterpart due to the size of its population. Therefore, the author argues that the competition between the two powers is primarily an economic one, not an ideological one, while Washington wants to portray it as between democracy and autocracy, between good and evil. He provides a set of recommendations to Washington in order to enhance its competitive capabilities, such as reducing the bloated defense budget and reinvesting the money it saves in research and development, completely withdrawing its forces from the Middle East, stopping unnecessary wars, and reversing all the steps taken by Trump in his trade war against China, etc. However, it is likely that internal political factors will prevent the Biden administration from taking such rational steps. Meantime, China continues to grow and pursue a carefully studied and long-term strategy. It is succeeding in improving the livelihood of its people and integrating its economy with most of the world’s countries, which gives the world a share of China’s prosperity. On the other hand, America does not have a similar comprehensive strategy. Moreover, the author asserts that the real competition is taking place on the homefront of the two powers, not in the number of aircraft carriers and nuclear weapons. The loss of the Soviet Union was due to the deterioration of its internal situation at the social and economic levels, which is what the US is currently suffering from compared to China, which is booming at a rapid pace. Therefore, the Biden administration should pay attention to reforming the US’ internal situation and preventing internal divisions in order to renew confidence in the long term that “America is really back”, as nothing prevents the return of Trump in 2024. In the third part, the author calls upon America to respect the opinion of other countries and defend just causes across the world if it wants to gain broad popular support. This was one of the reasons for its victory in the Cold War. Also, he rejects Washington’s speaking on behalf of the world, mobilizing its people against Beijing, trying to compare China to the Soviet Union. The US must stop doing that, or else it will find itself isolated without any support. The world realizes that China is not like the Soviet Union, it did not invade or occupy any neighboring country, and China is the only major power that has not fought a major war in forty years. Washington is trying to rally the rest of the countries against Beijing when it accuses China of using force in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Taiwan, but it fails to reach this aim. This is mainly due to the difference in the global position of America during the Cold War and its position today vis-à-vis China. During the Cold War, most countries supported Washington against Moscow, but today most of them are neutral in this great geopolitical competition between Washington and Beijing since most of them enjoy good relations with the two powers. Thus, if any US administration tries to escalate the competition with China, it will find itself relatively isolated internationally, even from its European allies. Countries are ultimately interested in maximizing their national interests, and China has become Europe’s largest trading partner instead of America. In 2020, the EU’s total trade with China was estimated at $709 billion, compared to $671 billion with America. After ten years the gap will widen further. The Russian threat no longer represents a strategic nightmare for Europeans, but rather a demographic explosion in Africa, whose population will be ten times larger than that of Europe by 2100. China offers Europe a valuable geopolitical gift with its huge investments in Africa, which will reduce African immigration to Europe. Moreover, the pandemic has strengthened China’s global standing at the expense of the United States. Today, China contributes to the global common good, which most Americans do not realize. Finally, the author denies that China is a “revolutionary power” in the international order as the Americans claim; even if it becomes more powerful, it still adopts the rules-based order that originated in the West and which was established by the UN Charter. At home, China adopts a non-Western political regime that enjoys broad Chinese popular support, achieves social stability, and improves the lives and welfare of the Chinese. “As long as China takes care of its people and doesn’t disrupt the world order, the rest of the world will be able to get along with China. And America will find itself isolated if it tries to isolate China. ” 


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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