Chinese and US flags flutter

Conflict & Justice

Was the US sleeping through China's rise?

If the US can’t take care of itself in times of major crisis, how exactly is it supposed to “beat” China in global competition?

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Chinese and US flags flutter near The Bund, before US trade delegation meet their Chinese counterparts for talks in Shanghai, China, July 30, 2019.

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Aly Song/Reuters

The Things That Go Boom podcast is a co-production of PRX and Inkstick Media, and is a partner of The World. This season on the podcast: What kinds of security risks are building out there? We’ll look at misinformation, shadow warfare and ask if democracy is even still in vogue.

For a lot of the world, the US response to the novel coronavirus pandemic has looked like a shambles. 

Not long after the virus hit American shores, medical workers were left begging for thermometers, body bags and masks, and were using trash bags as makeshift gowns.

The pandemic has shown that the world’s supposed superpower hasn’t been able to handle itself in times of major crisis. That leaves the question for much of the world — and especially for America’s adversaries — how exactly is the US supposed to “beat” China in global competition? 

Just a few short decades ago, the US looked much friendlier and shinier to China, says Kishore Mahbubani, a political scientist and former president of the United Nations Security Council. Southeast Asia looked to the US as a leader and a game-changer.

Mahbubani says his own life is a perfect example. He grew up in a relatively poor neighborhood in Singapore, with six people in a one-bedroom house and gang activity in his neighborhood. 

“But the reason why I succeeded is that as a child, I discovered a small public library about a kilometer from my house and I began borrowing books and reading books in English, written by very distinguished Western authors,” Mahbubani said. “And I realized the reason why Asia is rising now is that the West has been very generous with the gift of Western wisdom to the rest of the world, especially the gift, the Western reasoning, and that is now spreading through the rest of the world and is lifting up the lives of lots of millions and billions of poor people in the same way that my life was uplifted by Western wisdom.” 

Related: 'World War C': How did national security miss the coronavirus?

Mahbubani is referring to the western brand — free markets, entrepreneurship, good governance. But he says today, the US is not always seen as an exceptional Western country. China, meanwhile, is ascendant. 

For some, the coronavirus put an exclamation point on this shift. China did suppress early warnings about the disease, and there were other missteps. But the US has also struggled, despite self-congratulatory remarks by President Donald Trump. With less than 5% of the world's population, the US has recorded almost 30% of the world's coronavirus deaths.

The lead-up to the US-China power competition has been marked by a series of historical flashpoints — including the fall of the USSR in 1991 and China's accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001 — to which the US didn't appropriately respond, Mahbubani said. 

And while the US was “sleeping,” Mahbubani said, China was rising. At the end of World War II, the US accounted for 50% of global GDP. Today, it’s just a little over 20%. Adjusting for purchasing power, China overtook the US to become the world’s largest economy about five years ago. And before the novel coronavirus pandemic, economists estimated that China would become the world’s outright largest economy in 10 or 15 years.

Last season on Things That Go Boom: Nothing good happens after 'nuclear midnight'

If the US failed to see what was coming its way when China joined the WTO in 2001, it's also worth noting the effect of 9/11 and the series of expensive wars in the Middle East that have followed.

“Sometimes the point is made that 9/11 distracted the United States from China’s rise. But I think that’s actually the wrong lesson to be learned,” said Rachel Esplin Odell, a research fellow in the East Asia program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and an international security fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.

“The mistake was that we tried to use military force to bend the world to our will. And that US officials distorted intelligence and manipulated claims about Iraqi WMDs [weapons of mass destruction] … in ways that misled the American people and enabled the Bush administration's rush to war against Iraq,” Odell said. “So the risk is that that's what the Trump administration is doing in this present moment.”

“When Americans are experiencing a lot of fear and uncertainty, that can provide an opening for people who want the United States to pursue a more hostile or zero-sum approach to foreign relations, to push their agendas. So that risks pushing us into a Cold War with China.”

Rachel Esplin Odell, research fellow, East Asia program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

“When Americans are experiencing a lot of fear and uncertainty, that can provide an opening for people who want the United States to pursue a more hostile or zero-sum approach to foreign relations, to push their agendas,” she continued. “So that risks pushing us into a Cold War with China.”

Some believe China has more or less leveled the military playing field along the East Asian coastline or even gained the upper hand. The US regularly loses to China in war games where even US aircraft carriers are forced to sail away to escape an attack. 

“I don't think the stakes could be much higher,” Odell said. “This is the number one, number two powers in the world. We could be talking about an inadvertent escalation to nuclear conflict, which oftentimes is under-appreciated.”

The consequences of war aren’t just in lives lost, though lives could certainly be lost. Mahbubani says to look again at 9/11, and the invasion of Iraq.

“Some economists have predicted that America has wasted $3 trillion on that conflict,” he said. “If you can imagine the $3 trillion being spent on American people to provide health, education and jobs instead of fighting an unnecessary war … the American people would have been much, much better off today.” 

Mahbubani said the US accomplished nothing in the Iraq War, which also led Iran to regain influence in the region as one of the consequences of a fractured American global policy.

Related: Is a US-China nuclear conflict likely?

“So if America had a comprehensive global strategy to deal with China, the first thing it should do is stop fighting wars in the Middle East,” he added. “Every war, every, every intervention, whether it's Yemen, Syria, Libya, Iraq ... is a gift to China.” 

So what can the US do to begin to turn around the relationship?

“To put it very simply, if China was a company and America was a company and not a country, they would see the synergies within the two companies and they would immediately collaborate," Mahbubani said. “If the primary goal of the American government is to improve the well-being of 330 million Americans …  it should completely withdraw from the Middle East and spend the money on taking care of its own people. And China should take care of its own people, and they can both work together to take care of their own people. I mean, that's a fundamental common interest that the United States and China have.”

Odell agrees.  

“This isn't about trying to beat China. This is about trying to beat climate change, it’s about trying to beat pandemics,” she said. “If we both strive to win, we could both end up losing.”

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