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Foreign Policy

A Future of Chinese Strength and American Wisdom

Oct 25 , 2012

The night of October 22 is the third and final presidential debate– it will focus on foreign affairs. 

The next president must ask if America can afford to continue to be the police officer of the world.  We are withdrawing from one war in Iraq and in a mess in Afghanistan. Both have drained our treasury and with questionable benefit.

The next president may wish to take a page from ancient Chinese war strategist Sun Tsu.  Sun Tsu’s philosophy is to make fighting a war unnecessary, to instead accomplish the most with minimal risk — in essence, to win without fighting.

China, while spending significantly less than the US on their military they have been in an expansion mode. The build-up may ultimately swamp America, but perhaps not in the way some expect. The threat to America may come from within.

According to Pentagon officials, China is not yet capable of competing militarily with the U.S. and is at least a generation or more behind the United States in military technology.

Perhaps the real threat is what President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a WW II hero and Army general, warned about in his farewell presidential speech.

A little over 50 years ago Eisenhower warned the nation to beware of the “Military Industrial Complex” — an “iron triangle” of intertwined relationships between government, the Armed Forces and the industrial sector that manufactures arms and profits from them.

Americans must be careful that we do not allow China saber rattling, an expansion of their military prowess, evidenced by a testing of their first stealth jet, the construction of their first aircraft carrier and tussles over small islands in the East China Sea to draw us into an extended arms race that we can ill afford.

Should America protect our national interests? Absolutely! However, the policy question moving forward will be: At what cost? And do we win the battle only to lose the war?

Our military budget, like all aspects of U.S. spending, has recently come under fire in this new era of budget austerity.

China has used its evolving economic strength to gain enormous strategic geopolitical advantage in a number of areas; spending the better part of its stellar economic rise to build its country: Roads, bridges, air and seaports, bullet trains, schools, and universities. All have benefited the Chinese people and kept the Communist Party in power.

All the while, the U.S. has disinvested in our people and domestic priorities, allowed our infrastructure to decay and building up our military only to police the world, spending trillions overseas. It shows, too, as we struggle economically — we are also crumbling, literally, from within.

Clearly, China is also spending militarily as well as on domestic needs. If we try to keep pace with an arms race with China could we, like the USSR, go broke? Or will the American people become fed up with high unemployment, declining wages, aging infrastructure and a concentration of wealth in the hands of a few to demand changes in spending priorities?

The Soviet Union spent its focus and economy on an arms race with the West (primarily the U.S.). Economically, communism was part of the problem but the spending on arms ultimately bought down the former USSR.

Watch out for the Military Industrial Complex and it trilogy of political hardliners, U.S. military, and defense contractors bringing America down — without a shot being fired.

As China grows militarily, there will be a continued cry from our military and congressional and defense contractors to reverse the beginning of reductions or at least slowing the increases in military expenditures here at home. Just as the old USSR bankrupted themselves in an escalating arms race, China could do the same to us.

The future will belong to the nation that invests in its people. Investing in research and development, innovation, knowledge, creativity with a can-do spirit will propel us forward.

The question remains, will our expenditures on items that will make us strong both around the world and here at home match our rhetoric?

Can America afford both “bread and arms” when we have a deficit in excess of $16 trillion, borrowing 40 cent for every dollar spent and owing China over $900 billion? When it comes to the U.S. spending wishbone, domestic vs. military spending going forward, who will be the ultimate winner?

The next president needs to watch this building storm, protect our national interests, and be careful that our own preparation for the coming waves does not become our undoing.

Sun Tzu, reminds us: “The victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.”

As we continue this journey with a rising China, we will need leaders of great wisdom to make sure China’s rise does not come at our demise.


Tom Watkins serves on the University of Michigan’s Confucius Institute, and the Detroit Chinese Business Association advisory board and is honorary professor and educational consultant to K-12 schools and a university in China. He served as Michigan’s state superintendent of schools, 2001-05, and president and CEO of the economic council of Palm Beach County, Fla. 

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