The economies of China and the United States are still intimately connected. Hundreds of thousands of people still travel back and forth between them. But anyone who has followed the news of the two countries sees stories in the mounting-friction vein every day.
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The obvious question for the United States is, What is to be done? And the increasingly obvious-seeming answer, at least in Washington, is to get tough, and get worried, now. That was my reading of a piece in the politically influential publication Axios this past week, by its co-founder Jim VandeHei. The title of the piece was “China is the greatest, growing threat to America.” A few quotes convey the tone of its argument, with emphasis in the original:
The numbers don’t lie: China controlled 4% of the global economy in 2000, and the U.S. controlled 31%. Today, China has 15% and we have 24%...
- With money comes power...
- You don’t need the CIA, or deep study in Chinese history, to understand the grand design. President Xi Jinping has laid a lot of it out for all to see.
Made in China's 2025: The plan is to dominate all futuristic advanced technologies such as robotics, AI, aviation and space, driverless or new energy vehicles.
- In other words, to dominate the world by crushing the United States, Germany and all others in most important industries of the future...
- Be smart: Trump showed you can turn China into a villain on trade. But a smart politician could turn China into a unifying villain on virtually every topic—a reason to move fast and together on infrastructure, immigration, regulations, space, robotics, 5G and next-gen education.
In Axios articles, “be smart” is of course a political pro’s term of art. It means “Stay ahead of the crowd,” or “here’s a smart take!” But in my opinion it would be really dumb to let this become the hot new take on China. If China gets turned into a “unifying villain on virtually every topic,” the U.S. is almost certain to get less of what it hopes for, and more of what it fears, from the leaders in Beijing.
In the long history of China’s dealings with the outside world, I’m not aware of even a single case in which public condemnation by foreigners, or shaming, or ginned-up ill will, has persuaded Chinese leadership to knuckle under to foreign demands. On the contrary: If you want to see the worst and least cooperative side of Chinese leadership, give them a set of in-public ultimatums, and demand that they comply. No government likes to be seen as bowing to foreign pressure—and China’s government likes it even less than most, and likes it less now than at some other times, given the prevailing impression that China is on the rise and that U.S. leadership is in disarray.
It’s easy to understand why concentration on a Chinese villain could seem politically “smart” in the short run. The United States, with all its centrifugal pressures, is chronically in search of some source of concerted, unifying effort.