This essay uses the tools of Western empirical reasoning to analyze the origins and driving forces of the ongoing geopolitical contest between China and the United States. The essay argues that the origins of the geopolitical contest lie in China’s rapid growth from the Deng era, the relative socioeconomic decline of the United States, and the failure of the United States to work out a rational, comprehensive strategy for managing China’s rise. Finally, in the fallout of the global COVID-19 pandemic, where the relations between the two countries have been further strained, the essay argues that the two countries can manage their geopolitical rivalry if they concentrate instead on five “noncontradictions” that also characterize their relationship: that between the fundamental national interests of both countries; in tackling climate change; in the ideological sphere; in the American and Chinese civilizations; and in their worldview.
There is no doubt about what is the biggest question of our time: can the human species, all 7.8 billion of us, prevent one of the stupidest events in human history from breaking out in our time—namely, a major geopolitical contest between America and China? Why stupid? Our planet is in peril from multiple challenges, from global warming to deforestation and overfishing, and possibly the most important health crisis in this generation: COVID-19.1
Most scholars agree that our planet is in peril on many counts. Professor Benjamin Horton of NTU makes this point clearly and succinctly: “For millennia, the forces of nature kept everything in balance, with death by viral disease playing a part, affecting all species, plants and animals, including humans. But in the 20th and 21st centuries, things have changed dramatically. Earth’s ecosystems have been subject to unprecedented levels of global change stemming from human activities, a period referred to as the Great Acceleration, including climate change, land use intensification, atmospheric pollution, and species extinctions and invasions” (Horton 2020). COVID-19 should have provided humanity a badly needed wake-up call. Its rapid spread to all corners of the world, killing human beings of diverse ethnic groups, should have made it clear that the human species now lives on a virus-infected cruise ship. There is no point in taking care of our cabin only. We need to take care of the global ship as a whole. An even greater moral imperative is for all nations (read “countries”) to cooperate, rather than fight each other, when all of humanity faces many common perils.
Against this backdrop, we can see clearly the folly of America and China plunging into a major geopolitical contest at this point in history. As I say in Has China Won?, “Humans would look pityingly at two tribes of apes that continued fighting over territory while the forest around them was burning. But this is how America and China will appear to future generations if they continue to focus on their differences while the earth is facing an extended moment of great peril” (Mahbubani 2020, 281–82).
The goal of this essay is twofold: to explain how this great act of human folly is appearing during our time and to also suggest how humanity can work together to prevent it from imperiling planet earth, including the six billion people who live outside America and China. Indeed, there is also now a clear moral imperative for these six billion people to speak out loudly and clearly to both America and China. However, we can do so only if we understand clearly the origins and driving forces behind their massive geopolitical contest. In trying to explain and understand this contest, we must be clinical, neutral, and objective in our analysis. Given the highly charged political environment between America and China, this may be a tall order. Yet, if we base our analysis on facts, not suppositions, we can see clearly how unnecessary this geopolitical contest is. The essay also proposes how China and the United States could work together in spite of their geopolitical rivalries in tackling the most pressing concerns of humanity, including the COVID-19 challenge.
So what triggered this contest in the first place? As social scientists, we can say that the trigger came from China. After having experienced a century of humiliation (1842 to 1949) at the hands of Western powers and Japan and some travails from the 1950s to the 1970s (from the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution), China finally found its way forward after Deng Xiaoping launched the “Four Modernizations” in 1979. What followed was completely unprecedented in human history: the fastest ever economic growth that any major nation-state has seen in human history. The statistics describe what happened. In purchasing power parity (PPP) terms, China’s GNP was one-tenth that of America in 1980. By 2014 it had become bigger.
Clearly, the “mistake” China made was to grow so big and so fast. Yet China could not have rescued eight hundred million out of poverty and delivered middle-class living standards to hundreds of millions of Chinese without this rapid economic growth. Curiously, China has no intention of replacing America’s global leadership or to undermine or weaken it. China knows well that the 1945 rules-based order was a gift from America to the world. China has emerged as the biggest beneficiary of it since it is now the world’s number one trading power. This is why I argue strongly in Has China Won? that there is no necessary reason for a geopolitical contest to break out.
Yet it has! Unfortunately, a series of events and decisions have triggered it. The first and most important fact to know is that it was America’s decision to launch this contest. Sadly, America unwisely decided to launch it without first working out a comprehensive long-term strategy. The man who alerted me to this was one of America’s greatest strategic thinkers, Henry Kissinger. That was the message he conveyed to me over a one-on-one lunch at his private club in New York in March 2018. This is also the big message of his book On China.
This decision by America to plunge into a geopolitical contest with China without working out a strategy is strange for many reasons. It did the opposite when it plunged into a contest with the Soviet Union, a far less formidable rival when compared to China. The great American strategic thinker of that time was George Kennan. He was the author of the famous “X” essay in Foreign Affairs. Indeed, he gave many valuable pieces of advice to his fellow Americans. When America embarked on its great geopolitical contest against the Soviet Union, Kennan said the final outcome would be determined as follows: “It is rather a question of the degree to which the United States can create among the peoples of the world generally the impression of a country which knows what it wants, which is coping successfully with the problem of its internal life and with the responsibilities of a World Power, and which has a spiritual vitality capable of holding its own among the major ideological currents of the time.” He added that with this “spiritual vitality,” America should cultivate more “friends and allies.” He also counseled “humility” and bravely said America should avoid “insulting” the Soviet Union, as America would still have to deal with it (see Mahbubani 2020, 6).
Fortunately, Kennan’s strategic advice was heeded. America won the geopolitical contest against the Soviet Union handsomely. Curiously, America has not attempted to work out a comprehensive long-term strategy to deal with China. This is even though China will be a more formidable superpower competitor for America. It has four times the population of America and a political resilience that is at least four thousand years old. Despite this, America didn’t just fail to work out a comprehensive long-term strategy. It has also ignored all the four pieces of advice that Kennan provided. For example, if Kennan is right and the contest will be determined by domestic “spiritual vitality,” China is winning. America is the only major developed society where the average income of the bottom 50 percent declined over a thirty-year period. Even more shockingly, 40 percent of American families don’t have $400 in emergency cash. By contrast, the 1.4 billion Chinese people have experienced the greatest improvement ever in their standard of living. The past forty years are the best the Chinese have experienced in four thousand years. As a result, as Stanford University professor Jean Fan (2019) has documented, “In contrast to America’s stagnation, China’s culture, self-concept and morale are being transformed at a rapid pace—mostly for the better.” China has spiritual vitality. America doesn’t.
There is no shortage of strategic mistakes America is making in its management of the China challenge. For example, can America make U-turns and focus on domestic economic and social development instead of wasteful external adventures? In theory, yes. In practice, as I demonstrate in Has China Won?, it will be difficult to do so. America has had many brilliant defense secretaries. None could reduce defense expenses. Why not? Defense spending is not decided as a result of a comprehensive, rational strategy. Instead, weapons systems are purchased as a result of a complex lobbying system.
Now comes the really shocking part. Even though the Trump administration has clearly made strategic mistakes in its management of the Sino-American relationship, the only policy that the administration gets solid bipartisan support for is its policy toward China. Indeed, despite the deep political polarization in America today, there is a convergence of views on China. A Pew survey shows that nine in ten Americans believe China is a threat. The “deep state” has also turned against China. Hank Paulson says, “you have Homeland Security, the FBI, CIA, Defense Department, treating China as the enemy and members of Congress competing to see who can be the most belligerent China hawk. No one is leaning against the wind, providing balance” (Ip 2019).
Why are so many Americans, including thoughtful Americans, supporting a clearly flawed strategy toward China? Many Americans feel very angry toward China. Indeed, many feel betrayed by China. The depth of the anger toward China in the American body politic was demonstrated by the American reactions to the COVID-19 challenge. One of the most basic rules of geopolitics is that the enemy of your enemy is your friend. COVID-19 is the enemy of America. China is also an enemy of COVID-19. Basic common sense would suggest that America should have pressed the pause button on the strategic contest with China and worked with China to fight a common enemy. This is what leaders like Churchill and FDR would have advised America to do. Indeed, they defeated Hitler by allying with Stalin, a truly brutal dictator. Yet the political environment toward China has become so toxic that not one major American figure dared to make this commonsense suggestion.
Why has the political environment in America become so toxic toward China? This is a very difficult question to answer because both rational and nonrational factors are at play here. Some of the “nonrational” dimensions are “taboo” for political discussions in the politically correct environment of America, even though they are clearly at play. For example, the “yellow peril” dimension, a subconscious impulse, is alive and at play in this contest.
It may be easier to list out the “rational” factors that have caused the major deterioration in the relationship. This list would include the following: China’s mistreatment and alienation of the American business community in China (and this was an unnecessary mistake by China); the failure of China to politically liberalize and become a democracy like America (an almost universal expectation in America, as documented by Kurt Campbell, a former assistant secretary of state, in his Foreign Affairs essay coauthored with Ely Ratner; see Campbell and Ratner 2018); China’s military adventurism in the South China Sea (including a widely believed but false story that President Xi Jinping had promised to demilitarize the islands there); China’s launch of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and Belt and Road Initiative (which were seen as threats to America’s globally dominant position); and, perhaps most dangerously, China’s ability to move ahead of America in critical areas of advanced technology, such as 5G technology (which explains the ferocious campaign against Huawei) and artificial intelligence. In this last area, one initiative by China really hit a raw nerve in America. As Campbell and Ratner (2018, p. 62) said, “rather than opening the country up to greater competition, the Chinese Communist Party, intent on maintaining control of the economy, is instead consolidating state-owned enterprises and pursuing industrial policies (notably its ‘Made in China 2025’ plan) that aim to promote national technology champions in critical sectors, including aerospace, biomedicine, and robotics” by 2025.
Each one of the dimensions listed above is a complex subject. Yet it is also clear that one main driving force in the united American campaign against China is a widely held belief among influential Americans that America cannot and should never allow any other power to replace America as the “number one” power in the world. This same American impulse to thwart potential geopolitical rivals was also shown when the Soviet Union (in its famous Sputnik moment) and Japan (in its “Japan is number one” moment) threatened to overtake America. Fortunately for America, neither the Soviet Union nor Japan came close. Unfortunately for America, it is a very likely possibility that America will become number two to China in economic weight within a decade or two. Clearly, this fear of the loss of American primacy is probably the main driving force in the American campaign to somehow diminish or undermine China.
It is important to emphasize that this addiction to “American primacy” is deeply rooted. There is a strong consensus within the American body politic, especially among the American elite, that America should remain number one. Americans also feel an obligation to lead the world. Madeleine Albright expressed this well in 1998: “If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us” (Zenko 2014). Americans also want America to be the “shining city on the hill,” inspiring the rest of the world.
Indeed, the rest of the world would be happy to see a strong, self-confident America inspiring the world. However, its “shine” comes from its domestic record, not its military adventures. Clearly, the “sea of despair” among the working classes, the rise of American populism, and the election of Donald Trump have dented America’s standing in the world. Any objective empirical study would show that while America’s global geopolitical influence has been receding, China’s has been gradually expanding.
The incompetent response by many Western countries to COVID-19, particularly when compared to the strong responses of China and other East Asian countries, has led to further decline in the West’s standing in the eyes of the world, even as China and East Asia have risen in esteem.
This may also explain the strong consensus among the “deep state” members of the American establishment that this is the moment for America to stop China’s rise, before it is too late. This goal may be understandable since this is an impulse that all great powers have when faced with rising rivals, as documented by Graham Allison (2017) in his book Destined for War. Yet, if the strategic establishment of America has decided to plunge into a geopolitical contest with China, shouldn’t it work out a strategy first? Fareed Zakaria, like Henry Kissinger, has confirmed this lack of strategy: “The US had a comprehensive bipartisan strategy towards China from the opening in 1972 until recently—to integrate China into the world, politically, economically and culturally. But in recent years, that strategy produced complications and complexities—helped usher in a new, more powerful China that did not conform to Western expectations. In the wake of this transformation, the US has been frozen. It has not been able to conceive of a new comprehensive strategy toward the Middle Kingdom” (Mahbubani 2020, 50).
Since it is unwise for any great power, even one as powerful as America, to plunge into a geopolitical contest without first working out a strategy, the time has come for friends of America, especially scholars all around the world (including in Europe), to speak out and advise America to take a wiser course of action in dealing with China. A wiser course of action can only be based on an objective and hardheaded analysis of contemporary geopolitical realities and not on the wishful thinking that has characterized much American analysis and understanding of China. This wishful thinking has resulted in a flawed consensus that is a result of three grand illusions that have bedeviled American thinking on China.
The first grand illusion is the belief that as China’s economy grew and prospered as a result of economic liberalization, political liberalization would naturally follow, and China would become, like America, a liberal democracy. As indicated earlier, Kurt Campbell captured well this expectation of the entire American establishment. He said that “ever since [rapprochement began under Nixon], the assumption that deepening commercial, diplomatic, and cultural ties would transform China’s internal development and external behaviour has been a bedrock of U.S. strategy. Even those in U.S. policy circles who were skeptical of China’s intentions still shared the underlying belief that U.S. power and hegemony could readily mold China to the United States’ liking” (see Mahbubani 2020, 135). Hillary Clinton said that the Chinese “are trying to stop history, which is a fool’s errand. They cannot do it. But they’re going to hold it off as long as possible” (Luttwak 2012, 233).
It’s revealing that Hillary Clinton used the word history. Historians are accustomed to take a long view of human events. With this perspective, it is clear that the American republic has enjoyed a history of less than 250 years since its founding in 1776. By contrast, the Chinese state has had a long, continuous history, whose beginnings can be traced to the first unification of China by Emperor Qin Shi Huang in 221 BCE. China’s political culture and traditions go back almost ten times as long as America’s political history. Future historians will undoubtedly be puzzled by the strong conviction of American policymakers that a smaller and younger republic could decisively influence the political evolution of a state that was four times larger in population and had a history almost ten times longer.
The Chinese see their history through their own lenses. Over the course of the past 2,200 years, China has been divided and broken up more often than it has been united and cohesive. Each time, central political control from the capital breaks down, disorder results, and the Chinese people suffer a host of deprivations, from starvation and famine to civil war and rampant violence. In Chinese political culture, the biggest fear is of chaos. The Chinese have a word for it: luàn (乱). Given these many long periods of suffering from chaos—including one as recent as the century of humiliation from the Opium War of 1842 to the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949—when the Chinese people are given a choice between strong central control and the chaos of political competition, they have a reflexive tendency to choose strong central control.
There is therefore one simple but painful hard truth that American policymakers and pundits must accept: China will behave like China, not America. At the end of the day, the government of China will rest or fall on one key issue: does it or doesn’t it enjoy the support of the 1.4 billion Chinese people. No Chinese government, no matter how powerful, can suppress 1.4 billion people. A long Chinese political tradition allows the Chinese people to rise up against the government when it is perceived to have lost “the mandate of heaven.” In this area, there is one other painful hard truth Americans must learn to accept. The current Chinese government enjoys enormous support among the Chinese people. All the surveys show this. In a Pew survey in 2013, 85 percent of Chinese people indicated that they were satisfied with the direction the country was heading. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, 90 percent of Chinese people indicated that they trust the Chinese government.
Paradoxically, the strong attacks on China by American policymakers and pundits have only strengthened the legitimacy of and the public support for the Chinese government. It is truly unfortunate that the Trump administration has decided to launch a torrent of abuse on the Chinese government (ignoring the wise advice of George Kennan to not “insult” adversaries) because of COVID-19. In response to this torrent of abuse, the Chinese people have compared the competent response of the Chinese government and the incompetent response of the Trump administration. Over time, respect for America (called “the beautiful country” by the Chinese people) has gone down among the Chinese. A Pew survey in 2016 found that 50 percent of Chinese polled had a favorable view of the United States, down from 58 percent in 2010, while 45 percent saw the United States as a major threat to China, up from 39 percent in 2013.
Getting rid of the grand illusions of Americans will also help Americans to accept a new historical reality. For the past two hundred years, we have been living in a monocivilizational world dominated by one civilization, the Western civilization. Now we are moving toward a multicivilizational world with many successful civilizations. The new successful civilizations, like the Indian and Chinese civilizations, will not become replicas of Western civilizations. Instead, they will enjoy a rich cultural renaissance of their own deep and vibrant civilizational traditions. A multicivilizational world should be a joy to behold, not a threat to fear.
The second grand illusion that Americans must get rid of is the black-and-white view they have of the Sino-American relationship. Many Americans, including thoughtful Americans, believe that both in its domestic and its international behavior, America is “virtuous.” By contrast, China is seen as a malevolent actor, both domestically and internationally. This claim is not an exaggeration. Here is a sample of what senior American figures say about China. US senator Marco Rubio (2019) said that “the Chinese Communist party’s ideological commitment to totalitarianism has become mobilized into regular, brutal action, intended to forcibly assimilate anyone who dares question the Communist party’s political and cultural control.” US senator Tom Cotton (2019) has said that “Today the Chinese government is purging every vestige of its subjects’ freedoms at home to pave the way for its economic, military, and political expansion abroad. China has a plan for the world, and it’s as concrete as the prison cells where it keeps dissenters.”
As I document in my book, this “assumption of virtue” is deeply rooted in the American mind. Other scholars have also noted this. Professor Stephen Walt (2011) of Harvard University has noted that “over the last two centuries, prominent Americans have described the United States as an ‘empire of liberty,’ a ‘shining city on a hill,’ the ‘last best hope of Earth,’ the ‘leader of the free world,’ and the ‘indispensable nation.’” He also explains why many Americans believe that America is the best country in the world: “Most statements of ‘American exceptionalism’ presume that America’s values, political system, and history are unique and worthy of universal admiration. They also imply that the United States is both destined and entitled to play a distinct and positive role on the world stage” (Walt 2011). He then goes on to make a claim that most Americans would reject: “The only thing wrong with this self-congratulatory portrait of America’s global role is that it is mostly a myth” (Walt 2011).
The simple truth therefore is that America is not inherently virtuous. Nor is China inherently malevolent. Both are normal countries. All “normal” countries of the world have their shares of virtues and vices. It is unwise for any country in the world, including America, to proclaim that it is morally superior to other countries. This is why it was wise for Kennan to advise his fellow Americans to be “humble” and allow for America’s “spiritual vitality” to speak for itself.
The explosive improvements in the living standards of the American middle-class population were a source of joy and inspiration to the world. America’s other achievements also inspired the world. It is still the only country to send a man to the moon. At the end of the day, performance matters.
Sadly, America has been underperforming on many counts in recent decades. Two Princeton University economists, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, have documented this. The white working classes of America used to carry the American dream of getting a better life in their hearts and souls. Today, as Case and Deaton say, there is a “sea of despair” among them. They conclude: “Ultimately, we see our story as about the collapse of the white, high-school-educated working class after its heyday in the early 1970s, and the pathologies that accompany that decline.” The detailed study of Case and Deaton documents how the fact of poor economic prospects “compounds over time through family dysfunction, social isolation, addiction, obesity and other pathologies” (see Mahbubani 2020, 186).
One of America’s greatest political philosophers of recent times was John Rawls. If he were alive today, he would be shocked to see how badly off the least advantaged Americans have become. In his book Oligarchy, American political scientist Jeffrey Winters provides a stunning illustration of just how dire US inequality has become: the average wealth of the richest one hundred American households relative to that of the bottom 90 percent approximates the wealth disparity between a Roman senator and a slave at the height of the Roman Empire.
Given America’s enormous and rising socioeconomic problems at home and given China’s remarkable success in uplifting the living conditions of Chinese people (for whom the past forty years of socioeconomic development have been the best they have experienced in four thousand years), it would be wiser for America to drop the grand illusion that there is a black-and-white difference between the performance of American and Chinese societies. Here there is one fundamental ideological obstacle that American minds will have to overcome: the belief that a “democratic” society is inherently morally superior to a “communist” society.
The third grand illusion that America will have to abandon is that the vast majority of the six billion people of the world, who live outside America and China, will naturally gravitate to support America in its geopolitical contest against China because America is an inherently superior and more attractive country than China, just as many more nations supported America in its Cold War against the Soviet Union. Many Americans, even thoughtful Americans, believe this. Yet the world of 2020 is very different from the world of 1950 when the Cold War began. In 1950 most nations of the world, including many European nations, lay prostrate and weak. Much of the Third World remained colonized. By contrast, in 2020 the world is full of many strong and self-confident nations. Most believe that they are capable of making independent judgments on which nation is right or wrong.
A test case of the relative global credibility of America and China was provided during the COVID-19 crisis. On May 3, 2020, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said that “there is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan” (ABC News 2020). This was, of course, a serious allegation by one of the most powerful persons in the global community. In the past, if the US secretary of state made such a strong claim, it would have been both taken seriously and immediately supported by the allies of the United States. In this case, not one country in the world supported this claim. This is a clear bellwether of how much the world has changed.
Most countries around the world prefer to listen to trusted scientists and scholars on the subject of COVID-19. Hence, even in response to the lesser US charge that China has “hidden” from the world information on COVID-19, the world gave greater credibility to the points made by Dr. Richard Horton, the editor in chief of The Lancet, one of the most prestigious journals in the medical field. He said:
The reason why I’ve been very critical of the UK government, the US Administration and many European countries is because the Lancet published 5 papers in the last week of January. Those papers tell the story of what has unfolded in the Western world in the recent months. Those 5 papers described a new virus. They showed that this virus was deadly, that it was related to SARS, that it was killing people and that the number of deaths was rising. The patients were being admitted to ICUs and required ventilation. Those papers showed that there was no treatment for the virus. They showed that there was person to person transmission. They explained the importance of personal protective equipment. They explained why testing and tracing contacts and isolating people was absolutely key to controlling the pandemic. And they indeed also warned of the pandemic potential of this virus. We knew all of this in the last week of January. Most Western countries and the US wasted the whole of February and early March before they acted. That is the human tragedy of COVID-19. Thanks to the work of the Chinese doctors and scientists working in international collaborations, all of this information was known in January. But for reasons that are still difficult to understand, the world did not pay attention (CGTN 2020).
Equally significantly, on May 4, 2020, at the initiative of WHO, several world leaders joined a conference to show global support for the development of a vaccine. Merkel and Macron participated in the conference. China sent a representative, Mr. Zhang Ming, Beijing’s ambassador to the European Union, who stood in for Li Keqiang. The United States refused to attend. However, an important qualification needs to be inserted here. This strong and violent antipathy to multilateralism may be peculiar to the Trump administration. If Joe Biden is elected president in November 2020, relations between the United States and multilateral organizations could improve.
However, even if Joe Biden is elected, America will still continue to use its power to persuade or pressure other countries to fall in line. In the coming, inevitable geopolitical contest between America and China, each will be tempted to use its sturdy geopolitical muscles to cajole, bribe, pressure, and arm-twist other countries to join its side. This is normal superpower behavior.
Except the world has moved on since the Cold War. America’s relative economic power and cultural influence have diminished since its heyday. China’s relative economic power is far greater than that of the former Soviet Union. The most important ratio is that between the relative combined weight of America and China and that of the rest of the world. Many countries and regions have become big enough to walk away from both America and China. Most countries have also become shrewder at weighing and acting in their own geopolitical interests. Chan Heng Chee (2019), who served as Singapore’s ambassador in Washington, DC, from 1996 to 2012, observed that many Asian countries “are carefully defining their own positions, pushing back against pressure to choose sides between the US and China.” Hence, both America and China will have to get used to dealing with other countries that have become more confident and less compliant over time.
In short, if America were to proceed full steam ahead with its geopolitical contest against China and expect the rest of the world, especially its friends and allies, to fall in line in this campaign, it may find itself standing alone or joined by very few allies. Similarly, very few will support China outright. The vast majority of the world’s countries would counsel both America and China to think twice before initiating such a geopolitical contest.
Equally importantly, if both America and China were to do a rational cost-benefit analysis of such a major geopolitical contest, they would find that both may be better off avoiding such a contest. If we could marshal the forces of reason to develop an understanding of the real national interests of both America and China, we would come to the conclusion that there should be no fundamental contradiction between the two powers. Indeed, there are actually five noncontradictions between America and China. If wise heads could prevail in both capitals, they should reflect on and highlight these five fundamental noncontradictions.
China and the United States have not been able to work together effectively in tackling the COVID-19 crisis. Geopolitics has gotten in the way, with both countries trading accusations and counter-accusations against each other. Several American leaders, led by President Trump, have made insulting remarks about China. Secretary of State Pompeo said, “Remember, this is the Wuhan coronavirus that’s caused this, and the information that we got at the front end of this thing wasn’t perfect and has led us now to a place where much of the challenge we face today has put us behind the curve” (Stankiewicz 2020). These noncontradictions show a way forward in overcoming, or at least sidestepping, the geopolitical competition between China and the United States when dealing with a common catastrophe afflicting humanity, such as COVID-19.
First, there is a noncontradiction between the fundamental national interests of both countries. The fundamental national interest of both societies is to improve the well-being of their people. In March 1809, Thomas Jefferson (2019) wrote, on his departure from the US presidency, “the care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government.”
America is a much richer country than China. Its nominal per capita income of US$62,641 is at least six times larger than that of China’s at US$9,771. Yet even though America is richer, the well-being of its people, especially the bottom 50 percent of the population, has deteriorated in recent decades. One fact cannot be denied: America has wasted nearly $5 trillion on wars in the Middle East since 9/11. Brown University’s Watson Institute reported:
“Totaling these expenses and Congressional requests for FY2017, the US federal government has spent and obligated approximately $4.8 trillion on the post-9/11 wars. In addition, by 2053, interest costs will be at least $7.9 trillion unless the US changes the way it pays for the wars” (Watson Institute 2016). If these $4.8 trillion had been shared among the bottom 50 percent of the American population, each American citizen would have received about $29,000. If this amount is laid alongside the statistic that two-thirds of American households do not have access to emergency cash of $500, it shows clearly why it is in America’s national interest to put the well-being of its people first. Heidi Garrett-Peltier wrote in a 2017 paper for Brown University’s Watson Institute:
Since 2001, because the federal government has spent trillions of dollars on the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Pakistan, we have lost opportunities to create millions of jobs in the domestic economy, and we have lost opportunities to improve educational, health, and environmental outcomes for the American public. [. . .] Education and healthcare create more than twice as many jobs as defense for the same level of spending, while clean energy and infrastructure create over 40 percent more jobs. In fact, over the past 16 years, by spending money on war rather than in these other areas of the domestic economy, the US lost the opportunity to create between one million and three million additional jobs. (Garrett-Peltier 2017)
In short, the American people would be far better off if America stopped fighting unnecessary foreign wars and used its resources to improve the well-being of its people. Since China’s per capita income is much lower than America’s, it is also in China’s national interest to improve the well-being of its people. The argument that both America and China should make improving the well-being of their people their primary national interest should be incontestable. Yet the fact that the strategic thinkers cannot see this fundamental point demonstrates just how distorted their perspectives have become. It is the good fortune of both America and China that the vast Pacific Ocean separates them. If they can both focus on the well-being of their people and allow the Pacific Ocean to protect their respective homelands, both societies will be better off.
They could also find areas to cooperate in. America is suffering from a serious infrastructure deficit. China has emerged as an infrastructure superpower. It can build high-speed train networks faster than any other country. In 2012 Keith Bradsher of the New York Times reported that “China began service . . . on the world’s longest high-speed rail line, covering a distance in eight hours that is about equal to that from New York to Key West, Fla. . . . Amtrak trains from New York to Miami, a shorter distance, still take nearly 30 hours” (Bradsher 2012). Common sense would dictate that both countries should cooperate in infrastructure. Yet, given the poisonous political attitudes toward each other, common sense cannot operate. This is why a major strategic reboot is needed in the relationship between the two powers. If the two powers first try to define what their core national interests are—especially their core interests in improving the livelihoods of their people—they would come to the logical conclusion that there is fundamentally a noncontradiction between their national interests.
Second, there is also a fundamental noncontradiction between America and China in slowing the forces of climate change. If climate change makes the planet progressively uninhabitable, both American and Chinese citizens will be fellow passengers on a sinking ship. It has become a cliché to say that it is foolish to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. Yet this is precisely what the leaders of America and China are doing when they argue over their geopolitical differences instead of focusing on their common interest in protecting our planet.
Some wise soul has remarked that the best thing that could happen for humanity would be for astronomers to detect a distant comet on a collision path with the earth, with no certainty which continent it would land on. Only such a common threat would make the 7.5 billion people on the planet (including 1.4 billion in China and 330 million in America) aware that their common interests as earth citizens are far greater than their national interests. Unfortunately, even though COVID-19 has been such a common threat, it has not brought the global population together. The simple truth is that, as Yuval Noah Harari writes in Sapiens:
Today almost all humans share the same geopolitical system . . . the same economic system . . . the same legal system . . . and the same scientific system. . . .The single global culture is not homogeneous. . . . Yet they are all closely connected and they influence one another in myriad ways. They still argue and fight, but they argue using the same concepts and fight using the same weapons. [. . .] Today when Iran and the United States rattle swords at one another, they both speak the language of nation states, capitalist economies, international rights and nuclear physics. (see Mahbubani 2020, 266)
As our only habitable planet faces a great peril, should we focus on our differences or our similarities? The human species is supposed to be the most intelligent species on earth. This is the apparent reason why we have become the world’s dominant species. Yet the most intelligent species is now acting in a suicidal fashion by allowing climate change to gain traction without acting in common to reverse it. Instead, we are arguing about which countries are to blame. Robert Blackwill, the distinguished former American ambassador, is right to highlight that China today “generates approximately 28 percent of global carbon emissions and the United States is responsible for only about 15 percent.” Yet it is also a fact that global warming is happening not only because of current flows of greenhouse gas emissions but also because of the stock of greenhouse gases, especially CO2, emitted by Western countries, including America, since the coal-fired Industrial Revolution. In terms of cumulative CO2 emissions by the major powers, China has contributed far less than America and the European Union. All industrialized nations need to take responsibility for their actions and work together to limit further environmental damage.
China and India have been remarkably responsible in not walking away from the Paris climate accords when the Trump administration decided to do so in 2017. It is a truly strange world we live in when the relatively poor countries like China (per capita income US$9,771) and India (per capita income US$2,016) respect their global obligations, while a relatively rich country like America (per capita income US$62,641) walks away from them. As Blackwill (2019) states, “the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement has made China an informal global leader on climate change, as the signatories of the agreement proceed without U.S. involvement. This contributes to a widespread international view that the United States, reflected in the policies of the Trump administration, is withdrawing from the world.”
Global warming is not the only “global commons” challenge that humanity faces. There are equally pressing challenges in many other areas. The United Nations has identified seventeen Sustainable Development Goals to “meet the urgent environmental, political and economic challenges facing our world.” These are what the seventeen goals aim to accomplish:
End extreme poverty in all forms by 2030.
End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.
Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.
Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.
Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.
Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.
Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all.
Promote sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all.
Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and foster innovation.
Reduce inequality within and among countries.
Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.
Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.
Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.
Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development.
Protect, restore, and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, and halt biodiversity loss.
Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all, and build effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels.
Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.
This noncontradiction assumes particular seriousness in today’s world, which probably faces the biggest crisis of this generation: how to deal with COVID-19 and other future pandemics. The COVID-19 pandemic has already claimed hundreds of thousands of lives around the world, including more than a hundred thousand deaths in the United States. China, by employing measures that were seen as “draconian” by Western standards, was able to stem the impact of COVID-19 within its own population. It recorded fewer than five thousand deaths. However, instead of looking for ways to collaborate with each other and gaining knowledge of best practices, the United States and China exchanged barbs over which country ought to be assigned greater blame for the pandemic’s spread.
One fact is undeniable: if the world’s two biggest powers cooperate on these common challenges, we are more likely to find solutions. The actions of either one of them can have a major impact. Here is one example. When China made the bold decision to lock down Wuhan in January 2020, right before its Chinese New Year holiday, it also stemmed an even more fatal spread of COVID-19. Likewise, research for an effective medicine and eventually a vaccine for COVID-19 is taking place all over the world, through sustained collaboration among the scientific communities in several countries.
Third, there is a noncontradiction between America and China in the ideological sphere. This statement may come as a surprise. It is commonly believed that a key driving force in the Sino-American geopolitical contest is a deep and profound ideological divide. There was indeed a time when China promoted communism. However, it has now been more than forty years since the CCP stopped promoting communism globally.
The noncommunist countries of Southeast Asia and indeed most countries of the world therefore do not feel threatened in any way by Chinese ideology. Many thoughtful Americans may deem this naive. Many Americans have become convinced (almost as a matter of religious belief) that the success of Chinese communism inherently poses a threat to democracies. For example, in The Hundred-Year Marathon, Michael Pillsbury has written: “Chinese officials prefer a world with more autocracies and fewer democracies. [. . .] As China’s power continues to grow, its ability to protect dictatorial, pro-China governments and to undermine representative governments will likely grow dramatically as well. [. . .] [S]uch efforts have begun with the manipulation of news and information. Part of its $6.58 billion ‘overseas propaganda’ project expressly advocates autocratic forms of government” (see Mahbubani 2020, 271).
If Chinese communism is an inherent threat to democracies, it should be perceived as a threat by many other democracies. The three largest democracies in the world, in terms of population size, are India (1.3 billion), America (330 million), and Indonesia (250 million). If Chinese communism is a threat to democracies, all three should feel threatened. Some American policymakers feel threatened. Yet, if one were to ask either Prime Minister Modi of India or President Jokowi of Indonesia (or any of their senior colleagues) whether Indian democracy or Indonesian democracy feels threatened by Chinese communism, they would be puzzled by this question. Since both India and Indonesia are geographically much closer to China and have many more links with China, they understand China well. Certainly, the rise of Chinese power is a matter of concern to them. But Chinese communist ideology is of no concern to them. They see no desire or effort on the part of Chinese leaders to export or promote communism. In this respect, the attitude and behavior of the Chinese Communist Party is the exact opposite of the Soviet Communist Party.
Unfortunately, many American thinkers have unthinkingly transferred their previous assumptions about Soviet behavior to the Chinese Communist Party. There is a danger in doing this. The Chinese Communist Party is far more capable and adaptable than the Soviet Communist Party. Unlike the Soviet Communist Party, it is in no danger of disappearing anytime soon. At the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue, Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong remarked: “The Cold War ended with the total collapse of the sclerotic planned economies of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European countries, under the pressure of enormous defense spending. Even then, it took 40 years. It is highly improbable that the vigorous Chinese economy will collapse in the same way” (Mahbubani 2020, 271). Why is it more resilient? Unlike the Soviet Communist Party, it is not riding on an ideological wave; it is riding the wave of a resurgent civilization, and that civilization has proven itself to be one of the strongest and most resilient in history.
American strategic minds are making a mistake when they focus on the fact that China is a communist country. Chinese communism is not a threat to American democracy. Instead, the success and competitiveness of the Chinese economy and society are the real challenge. To meet this challenge, American thinkers should focus on ensuring the success and competitiveness of the American economy and society. Interestingly, George Kennan, in his famous Mr. X essay, also emphasized the importance of a strong domestic American society. He used two key phrases that Americans should take note of. The outcome of the forthcoming contest, like the Cold War, will depend on the “spiritual vitality” of America and on America’s success in avoiding “exhibitions of indecision, disunity and internal disintegration” (see Mahbubani 2020, 273). In short, it will be domestic factors, not external threats, that will determine how well America does. Sadly, America today is suffering both from a lack of spiritual vitality and from disunity and internal disintegration. Instead of wasting precious resources on a nonexistent ideological threat from China, America should use the same resources to revitalize its own society. There is fundamentally a noncontradiction between American and Chinese ideology, as counterintuitive as this may seem.
Even more surprisingly, there is a noncontradiction between American and Chinese civilizations. Despite Samuel P. Huntington’s warning in 1993, there is no imminent danger of a clash of civilizations between the West and China. Here, too, if reason could be the driving force in relations between countries, we would not need to fear the impact of civilizational difference. The arguments of reason and logic, as the great philosophers have taught us, have universal applicability in all cultures and civilizations. There is no reason why different civilizations cannot interact rationally with each other.
Yet just as human beings are heavily influenced by emotions in their personal decisions, they are equally influenced by emotions in their geopolitical judgments. To make matters worse, these emotions are quite often buried in the subconscious. While they may not appear on the surface, they are very much alive.
Emotions are also affecting Sino-American relations. It would have been easier for America to accept the rise of another power if China had been a fellow Western democratic power, especially a fellow Anglo-Saxon power. This explains why the power transition from the United Kingdom to the United States went relatively smoothly: one Anglo-Saxon power was giving way to another. No dark emotional overtones accompanied this transition. By contrast, China is a very different culture and has always been perceived to be different in the Western imagination. Between America and China, there is a natural and legitimate concern: Will they understand us, our interests and values? Will we understand them?
To make matters worse, there has been buried deep in the unconscious of the Western psyche an inchoate but real fear of the “yellow peril.” Since it is buried deep in the unconscious, it seldom surfaces.
When senior American policymakers make their decisions on China, they can say with all sincerity that they are driven by rational, not emotional, considerations. Yet, to an external observer, it is manifestly clear that America’s reactions to China’s rise are influenced by deep emotional reactions too. Just as individual human beings have difficulty unearthing the unconscious motives that drive our behavior, countries and civilizations also have difficulty unearthing their unconscious impulses.
There is no doubt that, over the past two hundred to three hundred years, fears of the yellow peril have resulted in various acts of discrimination against “yellow-skinned” people, from the Chinese Exclusion Act at the end of the nineteenth century to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The strong anti-China mood that has swept through Washington, DC, may in part be the result of rational dissatisfaction with some of China’s policies, probably as a result of the fear of China’s unfamiliar culture, but also in part from deeper emotional undercurrents. As the former US ambassador Chas Freeman Jr. (2019) has observed, “in their views of China, many Americans now appear subconsciously to have combined images of the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, Japan’s unnerving 1980s challenge to US industrial and financial primacy, and a sense of existential threat analogous to the Sino-phobia that inspired the Anti-Coolie and Chinese Exclusion Acts.”
Given the psychological reality of this “yellow peril” undercurrent, the American people need to question how much of their reaction to China’s rise results from hardheaded, rational analysis and how much is a result of deep discomfort with the success of a non-Caucasian civilization. We may never know the real answer, as these struggles between reason and emotion are playing out in subconscious terrain. Still, we should thank Kiron Skinner for alluding to the fact that such subconscious dimensions are at play here (Ward 2019). The time has come for an honest discussion of the “yellow peril” dimension in US-China relations. The best way to deal with our subconscious fears is to surface them and deal with them.
Fortunately, we can overcome our irrational impulses. In our modern era, civilizations are not separated from one another like distinct billiard balls. Instead, we have developed into an interdependent human community in a small global village, and our civilizations are deeply connected and integrated with one another. In an article entitled “The Fusion of Civilizations,” Lawrence Summers and I pointed out the following:
The great world civilizations, which used to have detached and separate identities, now have increasingly overlapping areas of commonality. Most people around the world now have the same aspirations as the Western middle classes: they want their children to get good educations, land good jobs, and live happy, productive lives as members of stable, peaceful communities. Instead of feeling depressed, the West should be celebrating its phenomenal success at injecting the key elements of its worldview into other great civilizations. (see Mahbubani 2020, 275)
Instead of fearing a clash of civilizations, American policymakers should be cheered by our observation that “the march of reason, triggered in the West by the Enlightenment, is spreading globally, leading to the emergence of pragmatic problem-solving cultures in every region and making it possible to envisage the emergence of a stable and sustainable rules-based order” (Mahbubani 2020, 275).
We also observed that the overriding dynamic of the fusion of civilizations is also taking place between the West and China. As we wrote:
The second great challenge many worry about is the rise of China. China’s success, however, can also be seen as the ultimate triumph of the West. The emperor Qianlong famously wrote to Great Britain’s King George III in 1793 saying, “Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its own borders. There [is] therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.” Two centuries later, the Chinese understand that absorbing Western modernity into their society has been crucial to their country’s re-emergence. It has led to rapid economic growth, new and gleaming infrastructure, triumphs in space exploration, the spectacular 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, and much more. (Mahbubani 2020, 275–76)
Even as Chinese society has accepted modernity with great enthusiasm, however, it has not abandoned its Chinese cultural roots. The Chinese look at their modern Chinese civilization and emphasize its Chineseness, seeing no contradiction.
Chinese leaders have also emphasized that despite China’s cultural differences with the West, there need not be a clash of civilizations. Speaking at the opening of the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations in Beijing in May 2019, President Xi Jinping said: “Civilizations don’t have to clash with each other; what is needed are eyes to see the beauty in all civilizations. We should keep our own civilizations dynamic and create conditions for other civilizations to flourish. Together we can make the garden of world civilizations colorful and vibrant.”
One curious aspect of our times is that in the past, it was Western leaders, not Chinese leaders, who espoused the values of embracing diversity. The one American president who lived through the nightmare of facing a realistic possibility of a nuclear war was John F. Kennedy. He was severely chastened by the experience, and on reflecting on this experience, he provided his fellow Americans with some valuable advice. In his commencement address at American University in 1963, he said, “So, let us not be blind to our differences—but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal” (Kennedy 1963). The key words in his statement are: make the world safe for diversity.
In short, foresighted American leaders of the past have arrived at the logical conclusion that even though humanity lives in different cultures and civilizations, there need not be a clash of civilizations. If we listen to them, then even in this dimension, where there could be a dangerous divide between America and China, there is a noncontradiction.
Finally, the one area where there appears to be a fundamental contradiction between America and China would be in the area of values, especially political values. Americans hold sacrosanct the ideals of freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and religion and also believe that every human being is entitled to the same fundamental human rights. The Chinese believe that social needs and social harmony are more important than individual needs and rights and that the prevention of chaos and turbulence is the main goal of governance. In short, America and China clearly believe in two different sets of political values.
Yet a fundamental contradiction would only arise in this area if China tries to export its values to America and America tries to export its values to China. Some Americans, who have become obsessed with the threat from China, have begun to suggest that China is trying to undermine the values of American society. This was implied in the famous remark by FBI director Christopher Wray, who said that there was now a “whole-of-society” threat from China. Sadly, the report put out by a group of American scholars entitled “Chinese Influence and American Interests” also said that China was trying to undermine American freedoms. The report said: “Openness and freedom are fundamental elements of American democracy and intrinsic strengths of the United States and its way of life. These values must be protected against corrosive actions by China and other countries” (Working Group 2018). Yet, although China, like America and every other country in the world, engages in espionage, and there may be some objectionable activities by some Chinese agencies in America, it is possible to assert with great confidence that the Chinese government has no desire or plan to undermine or overthrow American democracy. Why not? The simple answer is that Chinese leaders are political realists. They would not waste their time or resources on a mission impossible.
Sadly, the same is not true in the American political system. Many Americans believe that they have a moral obligation to support efforts to overthrow a tyrannical communist party system and help liberate the Chinese people from political oppression—that since America succeeded in liberating so many people from the Soviet yoke, it could and should do the same with China. As documented several times in this essay, many Americans believe that China is “on the wrong side of history” and that America should try to help move China to the right side. They also believe that since America is a “shining city on the hill,” it has an obligation to promote human rights in China.
Many Americans have expressed outrage over the treatment of innocent Muslim civilians by the Chinese government. Americans believe that they have the right to express outrage because they believe that America treats innocent Muslim civilians better.
But which country treats innocent Muslim civilians better, America or China? If the reports are true, the Chinese government has incarcerated hundreds of thousands of innocent Muslim civilians in reeducation camps. If the reports are true, the American government has tortured or killed thousands of innocent Muslim civilians since September 11, 2001. Unfortunately, in both cases, the facts seem to be true. The Chinese government has incarcerated hundreds of thousands of Muslim civilians. Enough media reports have confirmed this. Similarly, the American government has tortured thousands of Muslims. Since 9/11, America has been dropping thousands of bombs on Islamic countries, killing many innocent civilians as a result.
Since the records of both the American and the Chinese governments in respecting the human rights of innocent Muslim civilians has been less than perfect, it would be unwise for either government to preach to the other the importance of respecting fundamental human rights. A wiser approach for both governments to take is to look at the big picture and acknowledge that both governments face a common challenge of dealing with the threats posed by terrorists recruited by radical Islamic groups.
If America and China were to focus on their core interests of improving the livelihood and well-being of their citizens, they would come to realize that there are no fundamental contradictions in their long-term national interests. In 2010 then prime minister Manmohan Singh and Premier Wen Jiabao captured the positive spirit of Sino-Indian relations in a joint statement: “There is enough space in the world for the development of both India and China and indeed, enough areas for India and China to cooperate.” Similarly, there is enough space in the world for both America and China to thrive.
Equally important, in the face of the unprecedented health crisis of COVID-19, the United States and China have a responsibility to steer the world toward a safer paradigm. COVID-19 will certainly not be the last pandemic affecting humanity. It is important that we come up with a stronger response to common health crises at a global, institutional level. Likewise, the overriding challenge of global warming: America and China have a fundamental common interest in keeping the planet habitable for the 1.7 billion people of America and China and the remaining 6 billion people of the world. These pressing and grave challenges to humanity should take precedence over all other challenges.
Moral philosophers and religious sages throughout the ages have reminded us that we will never succeed in creating perfection. Nor will we have simple black-and-white options to choose from. At the end of the day, we always have to make trade-offs, including moral ones; to figure out what our overriding imperatives are; and to learn how to focus on them. At the end of the day, this is what the six billion people of the rest of the world expect America and China to do: to focus on saving the planet and improving the living conditions of humanity, including those of their own people.
In short, it is in the interest of humanity as a whole to see America and China work together to “contain” their geopolitical rivalry rather than to allow that rivalry to explode in the coming decades.
Kishore Mahbubani is a Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore (NUS).
Mr. Mahbubani has been privileged to enjoy two distinct careers, in diplomacy (1971 to 2004) and in academia (2004 to 2019). He is a prolific writer who has spoken in many corners of the world.
In diplomacy, he was with the Singapore Foreign Service for thirty-three years (1971 to 2004). He had postings in Cambodia; Malaysia; Washington, DC; and New York, where he twice was Singapore’s ambassador to the United Nations and served as president of the UN Security Council in January 2001 and May 2002. He was permanent secretary at the Foreign Ministry from 1993 to 1998. As a result of his excellent performance in his diplomatic career, he was conferred the Public Administration Medal (Gold) by the Singapore government in 1998.
Mr. Mahbubani joined academia in 2004, when he was appointed the founding dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS. He was dean from 2004 to 2017 and a professor in the practice of public policy from 2006 to 2019. In April 2019 he was elected as an honorary international member to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which has honored distinguished thinkers, including several of America’s founding fathers, since 1780.
He is also a prolific author, having published eight books: Can Asians Think?, Beyond the Age of Innocence, The New Asian Hemisphere, The Great Convergence, Can Singapore Survive, The ASEAN Miracle (coauthored with Jeffery Sng), Has the West Lost It?, and Has China Won?: The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy (2020).
This essay includes several excerpts from Kishore Mahbubani, Has China Won?: The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy (New York: Public Affairs, 2020).