Making sense of the conflicting narratives about China’s economic and political aspirations.

Astonishingly tone-deaf and factually questionable: “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man … they can’t even figure out how to deal with the fact that they have this great division between the China Sea and the mountains … in the west. They can’t figure out how they’re going to deal with the corruption that exists within the system. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.” (Former Vice President Joe Biden, May 1, 2019)

In recent months, we’ve been hearing a wide range of views about China’s economic and political aspirations and their potential implications for the United States.

Some of the opinions being expressed seem to be polar opposites — such as President Donald Trump’s pronouncements that the United States has been “ripped off” by China for decades.  Contrast this with former Vice President Joe Biden’s dismissive contention that China represents no competition for the United States at all.

Several days ago, the political commentator Dick Morris published an op-ed piece in the Western Journal in which he seems to be nearly 100% “all-in” with the alarmists.

The column is titled Trump Is Waging (and Winning) a Peaceful World War III Against China.  My curiosity aroused, I decided to get in touch with my brother, Nelson Nones, who has lived and worked in the Far East for the past 20+ years. Being an American “on the ground” in countries like China, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand and Malaysia gives Nelson an interesting perspective from which to be a “reality check” on the views we’re hearing locally.

I sent Nelson a link to the Morris op-ed and asked for his reaction. Here is what he communicated back to me: 

I think Dick Morris is correct to contend that the Chinese government’s long-term vision is bigger than just accumulating more wealth and power. In fact, I wrote about this topic in the book I co-authored with Janson Yap, when describing China’s “Belt and Road” initiatives as a geographic positioning threat to Singapore.

 I wrote:  

“As a land-based strategy, the SREB [Silk Road Economic Belt] promises greater long-term rewards for China than the MSR [Maritime Silk Road]; these would echo the impact of the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, which marked the beginning of the ascendancy of the U.S. to becoming one of the preeminent economic empires of all time.”

 The context here is, if you look back through history, the world’s most dominant economic empires were either terrestrial or maritime — but not both — until the U.S. came along. As I further wrote in the book:

“After gaining control over both strategic land and maritime trade routes with the completion of the Panama Canal in 1913, America became the first land-based and maritime economic empire in history; its dominance has spanned over a century, from 1916 to the present. Uncoincidentally, the American economic empire began when the Panama Canal was completed, but the Panama Canal has arguably contributed far less to America’s GDP than the country’s investments in transcontinental rail and road transportation infrastructure.” 

In short, I am absolutely sure China’s government aspires to overtake the U.S. as the world’s dominant terrestrial and maritime economic empire, and to hold that position for at least a century if not longer. But this would not be the first time in history that China has held such a position. 

For the historical context, refer to: http://fortune.com/2014/10/05/most-powerful-economic-empires-of-all-time/. There you will see that the U.S. produced half the world’s economic output in circa 1950. China’s Song Dynasty was the world’s preeminent economic empire in circa 1200 AD, producing 25% to 30% of global output. Only the U.S. and the Roman Empire have ever matched or exceeded that marker. 

I can tell you from my considerable experience on the ground in China that the strategic vision of its leaders is grounded in much more than just backward-looking grievance and necessity. Although the 19th Century Opium Wars (which were fought during the Qing Dynasty against the British Empire, and occurred during the period of the British Empire’s economic ascendancy) are often trotted out in China’s government-controlled English language dailies, the Chinese people I know have little or no knowledge of the Opium Wars or the colonial victimization China allegedly suffered a century and a half ago.  

But they are acutely aware, and genuinely proud, of China’s emergence as a leading economic powerhouse; and this is how the Chinese government maintains its legitimacy.   

China’s ambitions, in other words, have much more to do with reinstating its former glory (the Song Dynasty economic empire) than with righting wrongs (dominance by colonial powers), and are fundamental props for maintaining the Chinese Communist Party’s grip on power. 

This view renders many of Dick Morris’ comments unnecessarily hyperbolic; for example “[China’s] goal is to reduce the rest of the world to colonial or dominion status, controlled politically, socially, intellectually, and economically by China. In turn, China is run by a handful of men in Beijing who need not pay the slightest attention to the views of those they govern or the nations they dominate.”  

No, China’s goal is to become the world’s dominant economic empire but, just as the Americans before them, they don’t have to exert the same degree of control over the rest of the world as they do within their own territory to achieve this goal.  

And no, they require constant support from the Chinese population to achieve this goal, even though they run an authoritarian state. Why else would they devote so many resources to the “Great Chinese Firewall” if there is no need to “pay the slightest attention to the views of those they govern”? 

Yes, Trump’s trade war with China is important but his motive is to reverse the flow of jobs and capital out of the U.S. to China, which is not the same thing as launching an “economic World War III.” At a more practical and mundane level, it’s to fulfil a pile of campaign promises which Trump made when he was running for President, and to secure the loyalty of his base. 

_______________________________

So there you have it: the perspectives of someone “on the scene” in the Far East — holding a view that is more nuanced than the hyperbole of the alarmists, but also clear-eyed and miles apart from the head-in-the-sand naiveté of other politicians like Joe Biden.

Let’s also hope for a more meaningful and reality-based discourse on the topic of China in the coming months and years.

2 thoughts on “Making sense of the conflicting narratives about China’s economic and political aspirations.

  1. I’d bet that other long-time senior personnel in the State, Commerce, Treasury and Defense departments all hold more astute and nuanced views as well. Let’s hope their work and endeavors are what will drive the outcomes needed to manage relations appropriately.

  2. I concur completely with this. Morris is over the top. The Chinese want to do well internally, as most countries do. That surely dominates motivation.

    What remains to be seen with China is who more easily absorbs economic blows. We worry about the next election. Our policy choices are often short term. We can wait them out and overturn them.

    The Chinese government doesn’t face that immediate fear of displacement, but it is in power by a sort of economic consent, and if the economy dives there are no real mechanisms for the handling of discontent. Economic suffering the Chinese government may be willing to tolerate could be greater than ours, but so is the nervousness coefficient of a dictatorship. When “the natives are restless”, they worry more than we do.

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