Friday, March 06, 2015

Handing the baton to the next hyperpower

No blog has influenced me so much as that of Brad DeLong. I agree with DeLong with a frequency that is almost disturbing. I have often called myself a Brad DeLong sock puppet, mostly in jest.

However, for as long as I've been reading DeLong, I've believed that he is wrong about one big thing - the U.S.-China relationship. Brad thinks we need to do more to bend over backwards to convince the Chinese populace that we are their friend. I think we could not possibly do more than we have done.

Here's Brad's latest expression of the thesis:
In 1846 British Prime Minister Robert Peel accepted the U.S. proposal to draw the border between British Columbia and the Oregon Territory...As a result, when 1916 came, Americans perceived Britain as their friend. Americans perceived the British Empire as by and large a force for good in the world... 
The willingness of the United States to [fight for Britain in the World Wars was] powerfully motivated by America’s affinity with Britain...[Britain had] created a world in which the 20th century’s hyperpower would use its muscle to make the world comfortable for Britain to live in... 
Is the United States using its soft power now with the same skill and foresight? Not really... 
[A]t least one of India and China–perhaps both–will become late-twenty first century superpowers. And so we have an interest in building ties of affinity now: it is very important...that, fifty years from now, schoolchildren in India and China be taught that America is their friend that did all it could to help them become prosperous and free. It is very important that they not be taught that America wishes that they were still barefoot, powerless, and tyrannized, and has done all it can to keep them so.
Now actually, I think most of this is correct. It would be great if India and China thought that America was on their side, and had always been on their side.

And with India, I think there is a great chance that this will happen - in fact, it shows every sign of happening. The first major diplomatic step toward making the India-U.S. relationship similar to the U.S.-Britain relationship was the nuclear cooperation deal forged by the George Bush administration, which de facto legitimized India as a great (i.e. nuclear) power, and reversed decades of damage that the Clinton administration had done by trying to ostracize and punish India for its 1998 nuclear tests, and more decades of damage that previous administrations had done by trying to maintain a ludicrous false parity between India and the neighboring dysfunctional hostile failing state of Pakistan. So I think that, thanks in part to George W. Bush, but thanks more to the natural linguistic and institutional similarities between the two countries, and thanks even more to their shared geopolitical interests, we have a good chance of having a positive, enduring, mutually beneficial special relationship with India.

But then there's China.

Let's review a quick list of the ways that the U.S. has gone to bat for China over the last century or so.

First, through the Open Door policy, we prevented China from being colonized by various European and East Asian imperialist powers. U.S. power was the reason that China appears in light blue ("Partial European control or influence") on this map instead of in green ("Colonized or controlled by Europe"). Had the U.S. not done this, Europe might well have expended its energies carving up and dominating China instead of fighting World War 1.

Then, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, when Japan was conquering large portions of China, the U.S. put an oil embargo on Japan, simply for the purpose of saving China from conquest. This forced Japan to choose between halting their conquests and fighting the United States. It chose the second, and the resulting war cost the United States hundreds of thousands of lives. In other words, we got into the most costly international war in order to save China.

Then, in 1969, after the Sino-Soviet split, the USSR was considering a massive preemptive nuclear strike on China. The United States stopped this attack only by threatening to nuke Russia if they went through with the plan - which would have then resulted in a U.S.-Russia nuclear exchange that would have destroyed both countries. In other words, the U.S. threatened nuclear war, and risked its own total destruction, in order to save China.

Then, in the 1990s and 2000s, the U.S opened its markets to Chinese goods, first with Most Favored Nation trading status, and then by supporting China's accession to the WTO. The resulting competition from cheap Chinese goods contributed to vast inequality in the United States, reversing many of the employment gains of the 1990s and holding down U.S. wages. But this sacrifice on the part of 90% of the American populace enabled China to lift its enormous population out of abject poverty and become a middle-income country.

So again and again, the U.S. has gone to bat for China, harming our own workforce, risking our own death, and sacrificing hundreds of thousands of our young people in brutal combat. It is in part thanks to us that China is a hyperpower today, rather than A) a mishmash of European fiefdoms, B) a mismash of Japanese and Russian fiefdoms, C) a radioactive parking lot, or D) an insular, indigent economic backwater.

And has this caused China's government to teach its children that the U.S. is on its side, and supported its development every step of the way, as Brad would like? No. The government of China continues to teach its people that the West is their enemy. The state-controlled Chinese media continues to spout copious anti-Western rhetoric. The Chinese government continues to commit itself, in public and in private, to resisting Western ideas and culture.

Does this mean that the Chinese people despise the U.S.? No, they do not. They mostly like us. But the Chinese government, which holds the power and decides on geopolitical strategy, is implacably opposed to the United States.

So my question for Brad is: What else would he have us do in order to convince China's government that we are their buddy? What more could we do, in addition to the four aforementioned times that we saved China's bacon? Force Taiwan to join the mainland? Firebomb Yasukuni shrine? Recognize China's claim to the entire South China Sea?

Brad's parallel with the British cession of the Pacific Northwest is not an encouraging parallel. In the light of China's current territorial claims and aggressive actions toward its neighbors (including India), it seems to me to be an ominous parallel.

I counter-suggest that instead of trying to placate China's government by forcing our allies to make territorial concessions to China, that we take our case directly to the Chinese people, by increasing Chinese immigration, by building more cultural and academic links to China, and by continuing to have our leaders praise the Chinese people and culture in high-profile speeches. Will this be enough to make the Chinese government our buddy? No, it won't. But governments don't last forever.


  1. Noah, you do know the U.S. government funds Tibetan and Uyghur nationalism, right? You know Radio Free Asia still exists? These might be cosmetics, as with the Soviet Union, but they still contribute to mainland Chinese understandings of the PRC's actual relationship with the U.S. For better relations with China, recognizing the PRC's claim to the entire South China Sea would be a good first step. As would nuking RFA for good.

    1. For better relations with China, recognizing the PRC's claim to the entire South China Sea would be a good first step.

      Haha like hell!

    2. Anonymous4:06 PM

      Right. I wonder what Noah's response would be if China funded White nationalism in the US, and some White nationalists attacked Jews.

  2. Wuzza problem? China's the biggest and baddest force in the region, the Philippines deserves nothing, and Vietnam is too weak to defend its territorial claims (and the U.S. shouldn't be helping a government it fought and gave up on fighting, anyway).

    1. Because A) it won't make China be our buddy, B) it will violate international conventions on freedom of the seas, and C) it will send a bad signal to our other allies ("the Philippines deserves nothing"? Are you right in the head?).

      You're trolling, right?

    2. Nope, not trolling. "International conventions" are one thing; reality is quite another. The Philippines, being the only non-totalitarian Asian country to not have an economic miracle, and having a bizarre foreigner land ownership ban, should be considered too dysfunctional to back in any substantial way. Of course, the U.S. should keep some military bases in the Philippines (for its own sake, not for the sake of the inhabitants of those islands), but challenging China's right of way in its territorial claims in the South China Sea is futile. And what is futile to change must be recognized.

    3. Vietnam has done a credible job countering Chinese aggression for centuries.
      Rewarding China for being a narcissistic bully really isn't much of a strategy.

    4. Things have changed a lot since the last time China went to war with Vietnam. For one thing, Chinese GDP per capita was lower than Vietnamese then. It is no longer.

      If there's no effective means of punishment, then there's no effective means of reward. By recognizing a situation on the ground that we won't change, the only party who is rewarded is us.

    5. Anonymous12:50 PM

      Vietnam managed to hold of the United States. They can deal with China too. Especially if supported by the US.

    6. "Only" if supported by the United States. Vietnam in the 1960s war was supported by the USSR and Mao's China, remember?

  3. Anonymous10:39 PM

    Geopolitics is about self-interest. The Open Door policy was to preserve to trade access to China; preventing possible colonization was just a side effect. Incidentally, America didn't particularly care for individual Chinese at the time.

    Same thing with Japan. America did not want Japan to dominate East Asia and potentially threaten American interests there.

    During the Cold War, the USSR was perceived as a bigger threat than China. If China was conquered by the USSR, the rest of Asia might have followed.

    As for trade, American business interests apparently think the benefits outweigh the costs. Are they right? Not sure.

    If America wanted to prevent China from becoming a superpower, a preemptive nuclear strike would be the surest option.

    1. "As for trade, American business interests apparently think the benefits outweigh the costs. Are they right? "

      Right for them, not so much for the other 329 million of us.

    2. "As for trade, American business interests apparently think the benefits outweigh the costs. Are they right? "

      Right for them, not so much for the other 329 million of us.

  4. Hi, I am similarly a fan of your blog and almost always find something interesting to think about and learn. Had the Nationalist government won the Chinese civil war,perhaps this might have been different. Had the U.S. government under Roosevelt been less beholden to the "China lobby" batting for Chiang Kai Shek, perhaps things might have been different. I understand Mao and Zhou Enlai sought US support but Chiang Kai Shek blocked this. In the end, the Communist won the support of the Chinese people. Chiang Kai Shek plundered China and left for Taiwan, and the US has supported Taiwan ever since, including by supplying arms. How would US-Anglo relations be if Britain had supplied arms to the Confederates and the American South remains today a British protectorate?

    I think there has been many missed opportunities in Western-China relations, and perhaps it is not too late to win over China and her government to the West's way of thinking. I suspect in the end, China will be like Chinese people everywhere. They just want to be left alone to live their lives peacefully. China is still recovering from huge disasters of the past, including a very long civil war. I don't think the Chinese government is keen to go to war.

    Do continue to read more Chinese history. Parochialism is very difficult to transcend. You understandably view China from your own experience and history. Just my suggestion.

    1. How would US-Anglo relations be if Britain had supplied arms to the Confederates and the American South remains today a British protectorate?

      Interesting question, but I think I have an answer. In fact, Britain did support the Confederacy, in much the same way the U.S. supported Chiang Kai-Shek - with arms and supplies and money, though not with actual military force.

      I think the analogy to Taiwan would be if Jefferson Davis' govt. had fled to Cuba. No, the U.S. never owned Cuba, so the analogy wouldn't be perfect, but China only owned Taiwan during the Qing dynasty.

      Basically, American governments before WW2 did not hold many grudges. Unfortunately, American governments since WW2 have held grudges, e.g. against Iran and Cuba. This has hurt us.

      If China's government has chosen to hold grudges against the U.S. over the Chinese Civil War, that's understandable, but sad. In any case, I think it's clear that as long as the CCP rules China, the Chinese govt. will not consider the U.S. its friend.

    2. I wasn't suggesting that China's government holds a grudge against the U.S. going back to the Civil War. As I understand it, Mao and Zhou were realistic about Chiang Kai Shek's hold on the US (reinforced by the "China lobby", ignoring the advice of the old "China hands" in the US's State Department) and would not have felt let down by the U.S. I was simply saying there were missed opportunities, likely on both sides. See the excellent China History podcast at about John Service for some insight into the missed opportunities. (John was one of the China hands later persecuted by McCarthy.)

      On Taiwan, I understand Deng Xiaopeng swallowed a bitter pill to work on relations with the U.S. notwithstanding his view that the U.S. had betrayed him in continuing to supply arms to Taiwan. This continuing support for Taiwan seems to be he key stumbling block in US-China relations. I don't think it is merely with the Chinese government.

      I'm rather more hopeful about the Chinese Communist party. Technically, the UK is a monarchy and all legislative, executive and judicial powers reside in the monarch. Might the Communist party one day become a figure head like the British monarch, while accommodating some form of democratic accountability, perhaps not the way it works in the West, but a different model might emerge over time. To me, the true test of a democracy is how well the weak and poor fare in it. It's "comprehensive outcomes" that matter, not institutions per se.

      It seems unlikely that China would ever be a friend like the US is to Britain. Perhaps one day, if the U.S. were to be embroiled in a death and life struggle, it might look to China to help. I see no reason why China would not help, if only to preserve a rich market with which to trade and do business with. :-)

  5. Anonymous12:15 AM

    "What else would he have us do in order to convince China's government that we are their buddy?"

    How about not supporting that government's opponent in the Chinese Civil War? They might remember something like that unfavorably.

    1. See my reply to Kien above.

  6. Unless the U.S. gives up being a superpower, its relations with China will be determined by China's relations with its neighbors. If China is a bully, its neighbors will seek protection from the U.S., and this puts the U.S. into conflict with China.

    Regarding India, relations fundamentally ought to be better - it's just the legacy of India being aligned with the Soviet Union.

  7. Noah, some things will happen we like it or not. China will be the Hegemon not at 50 years, but at 20 years max. Too much bad for Japan, that is doomed when that happens. But World Bank says that China is the greatest economy of world, with US at second since 2014 and I think that WB is right and the economic diference will just go greater the next 10 years. China just build 21 giga watz of wind power (1.5 times everything wind power US have now and half all wind power the world build at 2014) in only one year, 2014. No idea how much China is investing at solar, but I think is is huge too, China scale economy is dropping the solar panel prices over all world. There is no way any country can compete with that, maybe India can compete with that but not now.

    I advice you read this book

    It will make things clearer to you about China, US (next old dethroned power like England), Japan (doomed, mostly because Japan cannot deal with the question about what to do when China rules the world, the japanese mind is tying a lot hard not to think about it, so when it happens, and it will be sooner than we think, Japan will have no plan) and India (the next big one that will start to ascend at the next 20 years).

    1. China wants to lead the world but no one wants to follow them. So they resort to "buying" the "loyalty" of countries like Venezuela and Zimbabwe.

      The closest thing to a friend China has (ignoring the joke that is North Korea) is Russia - the corrupt bureaucrats of China feel a natural affinity with the corrupt oligarchs of Russia.

      The day the developed world (Europe, Anglo-America and Japan) decide to stop importing Chinese goods is the day the Chinese economy basically implodes.

    2. Absalon, you will be surprised how much loyalty money can buy, my continent, South America, had a lof of non-democratic governments that US bought, including that butcher from Chile, Pinochet. And China have a lot of money...

    3. Joao - I think it is good for the world economy if China props up failed regimes in Venezuela and Zimbabwe. I think it is long term good for the world economy if China invests in a massive way in the Russian oil and gas sector. I just don't think it is going to buy China any real influence over world events.

    4. Abasalon, China is just investing a lot at Africa and South America and Asia. China is too investing and building a lot of infrastructure linking South Asia to China.

      It is not only Venezuela and Zimbabwe and Russia. It is ALL Africa and ALL South America and ALL South Asia, from Indonesia to Pakistan, from Russia to Turkey to Iran, from Nicaragua to Chile.

      At Africa, China is building railroads, roads, ports, buying mining operations, and land for mechanized agriculture (an agricultural revolution is just happening at Africa, from man labor to mechanized agriculture, and no one at west is seeing it...).

      At South and Central Americas, China started to invest at roads and railroads and ports and land for mechanized agriculture, but everyone here knows more chinese money is coming after the BRICS bank starts to operate, and huge quantities of chinese money. Chinese companies are the more important partners of Petrobras at Pre-Sal. The chinese auto makers are just installing at Brazil (JAC will open a fabric here at Brazil now at 2015), and they are buying a lot of land here at Brazil and Argentina and Uruguay and Paraguay for mechanized agriculture.Chile and Ecuador and Bolivia have a huge influx of chinese money, the chinese wants the minerals there. And the chinese are building a channel at Nicaragua that will make the Panama one obsolete.

      At Eurasia, China is building a huge rail system linking South Asia to Europe and crossing China (the Silk Road and the South Asia Belt). So, Asia products (mostly chinese) will arrive cheaper and faster at Europe because they will not need cross a huge detour around the seas. That giant trail system is starting to operate now, the first chinese products started to go directly to Lisbon using it. And take note, all that infrastructure is bypassing Japan, that was excluded.

      At Iran there is a lot of chinese money arriving and that is the reason US need urgently to end sanctions against Iran or US and European money will not have a chance there. But I think the US congress will hit the foot again. That too is the reason China and Russia are selling weapons (and the most modern ones, including the best russian anti-air system) to Iran, the chinese and russians.don't want to lose the money they invested like they lose the money buying the Iraq oil before the US invaded (you thought it was about weapons of mass destruction that Saddam didn't had?).

      So, basically, the chinese are building roads like the Roman Empire did and we are seeing chinese money going to all corners of world. The sad thing is that while US waste money at wars that US cannot win, the chinese are slowly building a hegemony.

      Absalon, money is the only thing that moves the world.

    5. Joao: The developed world has pretty well given up trying to invest in Africa or South America (except Chile). The preparations for the Olympics demonstrate that Brazil is still corrupt and incompetent. Venezuela is worse. If Africa and South America prefer to allow investment from China then God bless them all. If it buys secure food, oil and other resources for China, it makes China less dangerous. At worst it will bring temporary employment to some South Americans.

    6. Anonymous10:48 PM

      The developed world abandoned Africa and South America because they are corrupt and unable to develop? If they corrupt the money lent to them and fail to build anything, what about China actually building infrastructure FOR them, using Chinese funds? And when people are connected it's easier for them to develop. Wouldn't that be a start of something good?

      China has not been primarily buying up corrupt officials. They actually involve in the construction of infrastructure like railroads and make sure they are completed. Remember that corrupt officials can not own and enjoy those all by themselves. Average citizen and business gets to enjoy the benefit of them.

  8. If America is concerned over the rise of China then it should be working quietly to encourage the development of India, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Bangladesh etc. China is walking down a path that will lead to it having border disputes with all of its neighbors all of whom (except possibly Russia for the time being) view America more favorably than they view China. Not much room for China to be a world leader there - exactly who will they be leading?

  9. Think that you have this right. But CCP will fall eventually or sooner rather than later. China will become a country of warlords. What that will mean for US relations I don't know. But Taiwan will gain from it all. An alliance between Taiwan and some warlords will be good for the USA temporarily but Khmer Rouge types will surface and well things will be terrible. All these USA businesses will evacuate with substantial losses.

  10. Well, I find this stuff interesting, but I'm always reluctant to comment on foreign policy, as it's such a difficult area and not my field. But, as someone who's been a news junkie since childhood, I'll say more and more I feel that for so many problems, it's just not realistic to go for, a solution now -- My plan for peace in the middle east! You try to be really smart about keeping it from being too bad, and bide your time while the world gets more advanced and wealthy.

    If revolutionary technology makes solar cheap and abundant, and starves petrodollars from horrible regimes, if brilliant machines bring amazing wealth to the world, if high quality education becomes cheap and ubiquitous (It will take a lot more than MOOCs; you need good remote proctoring to prove you learned it, and a lot better learning tech.), and so on, then things will get much much better (and, of course, we have to guard against the dangers of advanced technologies too).

    This stuff is not simple, so simple rules can often be really wrong; sometimes the bold thing may be the best, by far; but more and more often it looks like, keep it contained, keep it from getting too bad, is often the best you can do, and hopefully with then a few decades of advance we can get real progress.

    It also reminds me of another thing I read that strikes me more and more, something like, often you just go along with incremental improvement, but eventually at some point the incremental improvements pile up so much that they sum up to something really qualitatively different, a whole new thing, perhaps a revolutionary improvement.

  11. The danger here is that we are re-playing 1900 but with the US playing the role of Great Britain and China playing the role of Germany with aspirations to empire and world influence.

    1. Absalon and Noah,China is playing the role of US at 1900, not Germany. While US built the Panama channel, the chinese are building the Nicaragua channel. While US built a railroad crossing from Atlantic to Pacific, the chinese are building a railroad crossing from Thailand to Europe.

      The difference is that while US forget the past, the chinese learn and know History (and China itself have 3000 years of History) and so they knows what strategies worked. Remember, Sun Tzu was chinese...

    2. The United States in 1900 was not in an arms race with Great Britain and talking about the inevitability of war between them.

    3. Anonymous4:09 PM

      Actually the US did seriously consider the possibility of war with Britain:

  12. Noah: "Does this mean that the Chinese people despise the U.S.? No, they do not. They mostly like us. But the Chinese government, which holds the power and decides on geopolitical strategy, is implacably opposed to the United States."

    The Chinese government *now* is not the same thing as the Chinese government 30 years from now, when current 30-somethings will be the leaders. I believe that Brad's point is that when those people assume power, their memories of when they were young will make a huge difference.

  13. Anonymous8:47 PM

    reversed decades of damage that the Clinton administration had done by trying to ostracize and punish India for its 1998 nuclear tests

    Ok, I will be the pedantic that points this out. The tests were in 1998, the deal was signed in 2005. How does a deal signed 7 years after an event undo 'decades of damage'

    FWIW, read Petitis. China is much more likely to go the way of 80's era Japan than early 20th century Germany. One of the nice things about getting old, you can remember that we have already seen this movie but in the last version, the country that would overtake the fading US was Japan.

  14. Liqian Ren3:35 PM

    Reading your blog, I also found mostly agreements except when you write about China. I don't know whether it is because your views are colored by your days in Japan. I hope not. To be honest, I don't even know how to start an arguement if that's the way you have viewed China-US relationship: that US has consistently saved China while China was never grateful.

    1. Anonymous4:31 PM

      You're assuming that he's pro-Japan. He isn't. Rather he perceives Japan as relatively weaker and under relatively more control by people like himself.

      If it were the opposite, if he perceived China as being relatively weaker and under more control by people like himself and Japan as being stronger and less under such control, he would appear to be more pro-China.

  15. Anonymous4:25 PM

    The US hasn't been motivated by charity in its relations with China and in its foreign relations more generally.

    The Chinese could just as easily conclude that the US has been a hostile power. US merchants were heavily involved in the opium trade. The US intervened militarily in China as a part of the 8 nation alliance with the European countries. The US agreed to the Taft-Katsura agreement which advanced Japanese imperialism. The US almost attacked China during the Korean War. Etc. The notion that the US has been deliberately acting to advance China is absurd. Any such effects have been incidental.

  16. Anonymous10:36 PM

    The US acts out of its self-interest, which sometimes helped Chinese people along the way. But it's hard to say whether the US put Chinese people's welfare before its self-interest (Not to judge whether it's right or wrong, it's rational at least). For example, before the US fought against Japan in WWII, it was actually supply oil and some other materials to Japan which helped them continue invasion in China. And the reason why US wanted to prevent China from being nuked by USSR was it needed an "ally" to help fight the Soviets, as the enemy of your enemy is a friend. The US has always pursued policies that would balance the powers in East Asia. You could find more proof by looking at recent events:

    The territorial disputes between China and its neighbors were mostly provoked by the neighbors, and US would soon stand by these countries after they initiated the conflicts with China. When Japan was going to dominate China, the US fought against the Japanese. Currently China's power is rising, so the US is helping other countries in Asia to counter-balance this rising power.

    It is worth noting that President Obama made it clear in recent years that the US wanted to see a prosperous China instead of an impoverished one. It's a good attitude that the Chinese people applaud to. But does it mean the US was thinking about something else before? No one knows the answer. Also a prosperous China means more demand for US goods. Another thing the President also said was the world would be in danger if the Chinese people all live like people in rich western countries. I think these ideas are somewhat representative of what US leaders have in mind.

    The US has helped Chinese people to raise their living standards indeed, out of self-interest. But would the US want to see Chinese people's standard of living lowered (or at least stagnated) if it jeopardized the welfare of Americans, even if the Chinese had no intention of doing so? So back to the question now, does the US really put Chinese people's welfare before its own interests?

    At the end of the day, whether or not Chinese will see the US as a true friend depends on how active the US would counter-balance its power not for the purpose of eliminating evil, but for lessening good. To put it in the context of territorial disputes as an example, it depends on whether the US would stay neutral and not stand by its so-called "allies" automatically, and whether it would stir up the tension further. The Chinese would want to see the US do less, not more.

  17. Really excellent piece. I couldn't agree more.