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Foreign Policy

Is A China Knockout Possible?

Aug 26, 2020
  • Tom Watkins

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

Lessons learned in childhood pay dividends throughout life. When I was a Junior Golden Glove boxing champ in Washington, D.C., I won the overwhelming number of my bouts. Every time I climbed into the ring, I was in it to win. Never did I think, “I hope I fight to a draw,” or “I hope I come in second place.” I always prepared and entered the ring to win, even when the referee and judges didn’t see it my way.  

My sparring partner was my best friend. Yet, friendship was not on either of our minds when we entered the ring – we were each there to win. After a good fight (and often with a welt under an eye, a bloody nose and lip) we would leave sparring practice even better friends. We understood the rules of the game - that someone was going to win, and someone was going to lose. We were both prepared – and fought – to be winners. It was inconceivable to think anything else. 

It is with these memories in mind that I find the reaction from many in the U.S. that China has the audacity to want to regain its status to again be number one in the world.  

And why wouldn’t they? I understand the argument of Americans wanting the U.S. to maintain its status; as an American, I am rooting for my team as well. But I also recognize why 1.4 billion Chinese might want to knock us off our pedestal and gain it for themselves. 

China’s Plan to Regain its Status 

We have all come to understand the axiom that when you’re #2 you try harder. Most of us strive to be our best self in all that we do. Countries are no different.  

Growing up in the sixties, a time of unquestioned American dominance globally, I could never comprehend then that China would emerge as a challenge to America in my own lifetime. A decade later with Nixon going to China, the U.S. took the first steps on a long journey towards engaging China, resulting in China first gaining Most Favored Nation Status by the U.S. in 1979, followed by their entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in the early 2000s. 

Seven U.S. presidents later, did anyone expect the outcome we see from China today in terms of growth, economic development, and investment power? China’s entry into the WTO has resulted in an explosive growth in trade, with China's trade in goods jumping from $516.4 billion in 2001 to $4.1 trillion in 2017. 

Today, China is the world's largest manufacturing economy and exporter of goods. It is also the world's fastest-growing consumer market and second-largest importer of goods. 

The U.S. and other Chinese trading partners have complained with little action resulting from China about their communist-capitalist characteristic economic ideal, and their taking advantage by ignoring the WTO rules to their western trading partners’ demise.  China is becoming economically stronger, as if it held a silencer to the head of its trading partners by threatening to cut off trade if the protesting country did not kowtow to China’s whims. 

Why does it surprise so many in the West - especially in the U.S. – that China seeks the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation?”  Regardless of their self-effacing ways, China wants and is striving to be, number one. Why wouldn’t they? 

China once led the world in innovation and technology, but after centuries of humiliation is only now beginning to regain its status. As Business Insider magazine points out, “in the 15th and 16th centuries, China accounted for 25% to 30% of the global economy, but by the 1950s and '60s, after the destruction during World War II and under the disastrous rule of Mao Zedong, it fell below 5%. Today its economy makes up about 17% of the global economy.”  

But China’s new roadmap to greatness charts where it is headed. They have mapped out how they expect to get there in its “Made in China 2025” policy and the Belt and Road Initiative, with ambitions to become the world’s leading superpower. 

A Caustic Mix: Political Fear Versus Reality 

After decades of deepening ties with China, the U.S. seems to have entered a deep decline in its relations with China, with no break in sight. The rhetoric between the Trump administration and China’s Communist Party is worsening by the day. Trump and his team are attacking China around the clock in technology, trade, human rights, diplomacy and more. The rancor appears to be equally tethered to the President Trump’s standing in the polls as election day nears. The reality is that China is making great strides and gaining on the USA.  

The challenges inherent in President Xi’s  “China Dream” and Trump’s “Make America Great Again” should come as no surprise. No American president wants to be responsible for America’s demise.  Every Chinese leader wants to regain what it sees as their rightful place at the top. Therein lies the rub. 

But China’s rise need not come at America’s demise. I continue to argue that we should seek ways where our two nations can coordinate, collaborate, and cooperate to lift up the people of China, the U.S. and all of humanity. Together, we can be, and have been, better.  

Yet reality dictates that even the greatest champs surrender their championship belt to a new victor at some point in time.  

While the current U.S. Administration’s plan appears to be trying to keep China out of the ring, it should also pivot to invest in its own people and nation if it wants to remain number one. We need a massive investment in the American people if we wish to remain relevant as the 21st century unfolds. Blaming or attempting to hold China back without a corresponding effort to invest in the American people is not a winning strategy. 

It has been argued that President Trump and his team of China hawks are so worried Trump could lose the election to former Vice-President Joe Biden that they are attempting to control the U.S.-China relations from the political grave, making the geopolitical interactions so toxic as to impair any new administration’s work with China once they are in office. 

Clearly, the way forward is uncertain. Anytime you enter the ring, your competitor has the opportunity to knock you out, regardless of your history of winning. 

We have our work cut out for us if we wish that American ideals and values will prevail. This heavyweight bout will continue to shape the world. 

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