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America Is Playing Defense

Aug 30, 2018
  • Tom Watkins

    President and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, FL


Photo Credit: Xinhua

The relationship between the U.S. and China, the most important bilateral relationship in the world today, concerns every American. As ordinary people, we need to start holding our elected officials accountable for how they manage or mismanage this crucial relationship. Without focus and strategic investment, the U.S. is at risk of losing in the game of global leadership – and facing a future where America does not occupy a dominant position.

Whining Is Not a Plan

What is America’s plan to lead in the 21st century? Sadly, our national leaders seem to prefer complaining to coming up with a coherent policy and plan for how to address the reality of a rising China. Whining about China’s “cheating” on trade and theft of intellectual property and using China’s rise as a boogieman to scare American voters during election season is not a plan. At best, America is playing defense without a coherent offensive playbook. What should be done to assure that the seemingly unstoppable Chinese rise does not come at America’s demise?

While national politicians dawdle, bicker and blame, China is busy investing, building, and thinking long-term — in short, acting. Both at home and abroad, China is heavily investing in the future of artificial intelligence (AI), education and infrastructure, while striving to define transportation in the 21st century with autonomous and electric vehicles. According to an Axios special report, “experts say the U.S. is falling further behind, and that our nation needs a massive strategic and investment plan similar to the post-World War II mobilization that included the Marshall Plan, the G.I. Bill and the space race.”

America’s mismatched policy of angry speeches, policy documents branding China a strategic competitor and tariffs on China’s products are all hurting American interests, farmers, and manufacturers. All of these actions may have negative effects on the American economy, whilst failing to cause economic change in China. Rather than grasp the enormity of the “China threat” and America’s opportunity to step up and compete, our leaders are hobbling our ability to compete at home and abroad.

China’s Plan on Display

China’s ambitions are no longer hidden as they were when it first opened to the West. Then, China’s foreign policy was guided by a doctrine best summed up in 1990 by former leader Deng Xiaoping as: “Hide your strength and bide your time.” China has clearly parted decisively from Deng’s decades-long strategy of “keeping a low profile.” Today, President Xi has proclaimed proudly and defiantly that “China has stood up!”

Last year, in a three and a half hour address to the Communist Party of China, President Xi said, “It is time for us to take centerstage in the world and to make a greater contribution to humankind.” He argued that “a flourishing” economic model of socialism with Chinese characteristics offered a “new choice” of economic model for the developing world. Today, China has outlined strategies developed and designed “to displace the United States as the dominant global economic and national security superpower” according to many global strategic thinkers.

Any American ‘plan’ built on containing and restraining China is doomed to failure. We can no more contain or hold back China than we can cork a volcano. China is pouring time, money, infrastructure capacity, and goods into every continent, after promising to fill the global void created by Trump’s America First campaign promise. While China thinks long-term, there is no U.S. equivalent of any plan for next year – let alone 2025 or 2050.

China’s authoritarian political system allows it the ability to experiment at scale, mobilizing capital that no democracy can match. China has so much capacity to build that it is exporting materials and labor to other countries in order to build their infrastructure. It is currently building the largest global infrastructure project in history, the Belt and Road Initiative – a development strategy which focuses on connectivity and cooperation between Eurasian countries. Meanwhile, antiquated U.S. airports, bridges, roads, and electrical systems continue to crumble.

China is growing three times as fast as the U.S. economy. At current projections, China’s GDP will be larger than America’s by 2028. Numbers don’t lie: China controlled 4% of the global economy in 2000, while the U.S. controlled 31%. Today, China’s share is 15%, while the U.S.’ is 24%.

With Money Comes Power

What should Republicans and Democrats politicians be concerned-about? Offering America’s grand design to counter China’s.

Two members of Congress from across the political divide are sounding the alarm about China’s intentions. However, these politicians offer little in the way of an investment plan for America that could change, thwart, or even simply prepare America for the rise of China.

Democratic Representative Tim Ryan, who represents the classic Rust Belt town of Youngstown, Ohio, said, “I’m getting more and more worried every day...China has a grand strategy that includes all of government — economy, military, education, and politics — with the goal of elevating China to the number one military and economic power in the world."

Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has said, “Americans benefit every day from the fact that America is the most powerful nation on earth. If that's erased, this won't be the same country. If economic and military power move to China, an authoritarian state, that affects things we take for granted like free speech, equal opportunity, and human rights."

While they raise concerns, they offer no plan of action.

The best plan would be a massive investment strategy in America. Instead, sadly, we are disinvesting even as China is investing in its education, infrastructure, and technology – fully embracing the future. Rather than embracing change and the future of technology, far too many Americans are running from it. Our current “blame China strategy” is not what will solve America’s problems.

Over the years, I have considered ways that China and the U.S might collaborate and compete on a global stage. As I recently argued, we have little ability to control China, but we do have 100% control in investing in our own future, from research and development to education and infrastructure. But the hour is growing late – America must wake up and act now or risk being overtaken by China.

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