A Smart Approach to China-U.S. Relations


Consider a country that is the global superpower.

Its military is best-of-breed. Its reach extends from Japan to the West Indies to the Indian Ocean, and beyond. Its industries of the most productive in the world. It Is predominate in world trade. It dominates global finance.

But, when this global superpower looks to the west, across the sea, it sees a rising power—a confident nation with a larger population, hungry for wealth, hungry for preeminence, seeing itself as possessing a manifest destiny to supersede the old superpower. And, unless something goes horribly wrong with the rising power to the west, its rise is indeed all but inevitable.

Thus the proper goal for the current superpower is to ensure a soft landing—ensure that the world will still be a comfortable place for it, once its preeminence as the global superpower is over.

There are, of course, sources of conflict: the rising superpower wants more access to markets and to intellectual property than the current superpower wishes to provide. And what the current superpower does not willingly provide, the rising superpower will seek to take. The rising superpower wants a weight in international councils corresponding to what its fundamental power will be a generation hence, nd is not satisfied with a weight corresponding to its fundamental power today.

These are all valid sources of conflict. They need to be managed. Interests need to be advanced, and defended. But they do not outweigh the joint interests in peace and prosperity.

So what should the superpower currently dominant do? How should it use its current preeminence?

And am I talking about the United States and China today, about Britain and the United States a century and a half ago, or about Holland and Britain 350 years ago?

In the case of Holland and Britain, a spate of cold trade and hot naval wars in the 1600s led to the infusion into the English language of a remarkably large number of derogatory phrases based on "Dutch": Dutch bargain, Dutch book, Dutch comfort, Dutch concert, Dutch courage, Dutch defence, Dutch leave, Dutch metal, Dutch nightingale, Dutch reckoning, Dutch treat, Dutch uncle, "if I do it not, I'm a Dutchman"—and, possibly, Dutch auction and Dutch oven. It led also to perhaps the most memorable line in British naval bureaucrat Samuel Pepys's diary, as the navy he had built and supplied faced superior numbers of Dutch at Harwich, Portsmouth, Plymouth, and Dartmouth: "By God! I think the Devil shits Dutchmen!"

But in the long run fundamentals told, and Britain rose to global hyperpower. Possibly decisive for the Dutch-British transition was the wind shift of 24 October 1688 to an east Protestant wind. That allowed the Dutch fleet to leave harbor. The following Dutch military intervention in support of the aristocratic-Whig coup against the Stuart dynasty that brought hereditary Dutch Stadthouder William III of Orange to the British throne.

Thereafter the common interests of both powers in limited government, mercantile prosperity, and anti-Catholicism created a durable alliance with the Dutch as junior partner around, in the words of the viral tweet of the 1700s, "no popery or wooden shoes!" Under Britain's aegis the Dutch remained independent rather than becoming involuntarily Francofied. It was a—largely—comfortable world for the Dutch, and for Holland.

In the case of Britain and the United States, after 1815 the British government followed a durable policy that was rather odd for 19th Century Britain, whose SOP was usually: "we burn your fleet, and perhaps your capital, first, and negotiate later".

Britain acceded to the Monroe Doctrine in 1823; accepted a line of demarcation in the Oregon Territory that left the British-settler majority region that is now the state of Washington in American hands; did not intervene on the side of free trade in 1862; accepted American mediation on the Venezuelan border; supported American annexation of the Philippines; relinquished rights and interests in what became the Panama Canal zone; and acquiesced to the American position on where the boundary between Alaska and the Yuko actually was.

Britain, instead, gave scholarships to American wannabe aristocrats who wanted to study at Oxford and Cambridge; gleefully married off its own aristocrats with titles to American heiresses—Winston Churchill's parents became engaged three days after meeting at a sailing regatta on the Isle of Wight—and stressed common lineage, cultural, and economic ties; and, as the young Harold Macmillan unwisely, because too publicly, put it when he was seconded to Eisenhower's staff in North Africa in late 1942, became "the Greeks to the American Romans".

The result was that the United States became Britain's wired aces in the hole in teh game of seven-card stud that was twentieth-century geopolitics.

The fundamentals tolled against Britain. One island cannot, they said, in the long run "Half a continent will, said economic historian J.H. Clapham speaking of the United States, in the end raise more coal and melt more steel than one small densely-populated island".

Yet perhaps Britain's supersession by America was not inevitable. In 1860 the United States had a full-citizen population of 25 million, and Britain and its dominions had a full-citizen population of 32 million. By 1940 the full-citizen numbers were 117 and 76 million. But the pro-rated descendents of the full citizens as of 1860 were 50 and 65 million, advantage Britain and the Dominions.

As the Financial Times's Martin Wolf points out, his ancestors were some of the very few who made the much cheaper migration from the Ashkenazi Pale of Settlement to London than to New York.

Up to 1924 New York welcomed all comers from Europe and the Middle East, while London and the Dominions were only welcoming to northern European Protestants.

A Britain more interested in turning Jews, Poles, Italians, Romanians, and even Turks who do not happen to be named Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson—who bears Turkish Minister of the Interior Ali Kemal's Y and five other chromosomes, and hence is, by all the rules of conservative patriarchy, a Turk—at turning them into Britons or Australians or Canadians would have been much stronger throughout the twentieth century.

Perhaps it would not be in its current highly undignified position.

Compared to Holland and Britain when they were global hyperpowers pursuing soft landings, how are we doing?

The answer has to be: since January 2017, not well at all.

There is a lot of wisdom in George Kennan’s 1947 "Sources of Soviet Conduct". Three points stand out:

  1. Do not panic, but recognize what the long game is, and play it.

  2. Contain, but not unilaterally: assemble broad alliances to confront, resist, and sanction as a group.

  3. Become your best self, because ultimately, as long as the struggle between systems can be kept peaceful, liberty and prosperity will be decisive.

    • Are we forming alliances—cough, TPP— to contain?
    • Or are we making the random incoherent demands for things like immediate bilateral balance that can only be understood as the actions of a chaos monkey?
    • Are we not panicking?
    • Are we soberly playing the long game?

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