Those days have come to an end. China is now the most formidable state Americans have dealt with certainly since the Soviet Union and in some ways since the 19th century.
by Anwar A. Khan
After more than 8 decades of American illegitimate hegemony in many independent countries, it is now time for it to be no longer be the world’s dominant state and the whole world must not allow America to claim that title.
For the last generation, one nation has wielded unmatched military power, bent the international financial system to its will, established almost unilaterally the standards of global communication and infrastructure, and dominated culture and media. For Americans, these seemed good years. And for most others, America’s tutelage was easy, its burden light—certainly compared to history’s other real or aspiring hegemony.
Those days have come to an end. China is now the most formidable state Americans have dealt with certainly since the Soviet Union and in some ways since the 19th century. China’s economy is almost as large or perhaps larger than America’s already and, with roughly four times of Amrican population and an increasingly educated workforce, its overall (if not per capita) productive capacity should eventually exceed theirs by a comfortable margin. By contrast, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and Imperial Germany were all considerably smaller economies. China has also proved capable of succeeding in the global economy in a way that the Soviets never would or could. As a result, China has a lot of power to use on and against Americans.
Indeed, recognition that China is a profound challenge is one of the few matters that draw forth near unanimity in American politics. While the Trump Administration was the first to adopt a more realistic and confrontational response to Beijing’s growing power and assertiveness, the Biden Administration has essentially continued its predecessor’s basic line, albeit in different form and fashion and with different areas of focus. The view that China poses a very serious challenge may be one of the few areas of genuine and meaningful bipartisan agreement in the Congress, and polls indicate that the American people themselves increasingly recognize China as a serious and primary threat.
But after decades of foreign policy debates centered on dealing with states and actors far weaker than Americans, the United States has lost the “finger tip feel” and grammar for determining how to respond to a nation that is comparable to us in power.
Why China is such a challenge and what Americans should try to do in counteracting it remain at best vaguely defined. In point of fact, the answers to these questions are far from obvious. After all, China is far away, as is Asia, where most of Beijing’s influence is currently felt.
Meanwhile, America is physically secure, located behind two great oceans and protected by a large military and survivable nuclear arsenal. The chances of China invading and occupying the United States are therefore remote. Further, America is very rich. While our nation has serious problems, including social alienation and inequality, Americans are in relative terms doing well and our growth prospects emerging from the pandemic appear relatively good.
It is of critical importance to prosperity and ultimately freedom that no state dominate one of the key market areas of the world. This sounds abstract and detached but, if allowed to happen, would be very real in its implications for Americans. A state that could exercise sway over a very large portion of the global economy could and almost certainly would use that enormous leverage to shape really even determine international economic flows, regulations, and trade to its benefit. Over time, this would make Americans increasingly dependent upon a foreign power and weaken their companies, their workers, and American economy. It should betide upon American nation because of their sinful acts towards other independent and sovereign nations.
The most plausible and consequential threat of that coming to pass is China’s attainment of hegemony over Asia. Asia comprises roughly half of the global market, and that share is rising. China constitutes roughly half of Asia’s GDP. If Beijing exercises control over Asia’s huge and growing market area, its influence will ultimately be dominant worldwide as well, giving it the market, scale, and regulatory power to define the world’s future. Building upon such economic advantages, it could intrude into and shape American national life, using its position to coerce, bribe, and cajole companies, individuals, and governments to do its will, diminishing America’s economic vitality and, through that, their freedoms.
If Beijing exercises control over Asia’s huge and growing market area, its influence will ultimately be dominant worldwide as well, giving it the market, scale, and regulatory power to define the world’s future.
We already see this happening around the world, as China brings its immense economic power to bear. The most famous example is the Belt and Road Initiative, a massive network of Chinese investments designed to net China closely with the countries of Eurasia through overland and maritime links, as well as the financial links that accompany those investments. This is giving China more leverage throughout the region, leverage it has increasingly put to use. To take just one example: When Sri Lanka failed to pay its heavy Belt and Road debts, China extracted a 99-year lease to a key port in the island country.
But China is not just picking on the small fry; rather, it is using its growing economic leverage to seek to coerce more advanced economies as well. For instance, it is currently trying to use its status as a major importer from Australia to compel that nation to submit to 14 searching and even humiliating demands, including changes to Australia’s domestic legislation and dampening of media coverage that is critical of China. The proximate cause of Beijing’s pressure is that Canberra had the audacity to call for an independent investigation of the origins of the COVID-19 virus. Beijing has also sought to its economic heft to coerce South Korea over missile defense deployments and Japan over territorial disputes in the East China Sea.
There is little reason to think that the United States would be spared such manipulation if China had the power to affect it. Indeed, we have already seen Chinese economic leverage marshalled against major American brands like Disney, the NBA, and Marriott—sadly, with some success. Even cage fighter John Cena, concerned for his movie’s success in China, was reduced to apologizing for inadequately toeing Beijing’s line on Taiwan.
This is just a taste of what China will do if it attains a hegemonic position over Asia. First and foremost, such a China would reshape international economic flows, regulation, and trade in its favor and to its preferences. This is a natural instinct of dominant states, as it provides great benefits on multiple levels. It allows the dominant state to ensure that the most lucrative and beneficial forms of economic activity cluster within and for itself rather than for others and somewhere else. It generates scale, enabling firms to gain advantages and compete more efficiently, thereby becoming more productive and dominant and making their investors, officers, and employees wealthier and more secure.
Think how the American-born internet supported Silicon Valley, and vice versa, leading to a World Wide Web governed by formal laws and informal norms almost entirely of American design. Think how the desire for access to American capital markets gives American regulators de facto control over global accounting standards, or how the need to transact with American institutions allows U.S. Treasury officials to freeze the assets of designated targets anywhere in the world. Think how Americans take for granted that English is the universal language and that everyone accepts dollars. Think how the American university degree has become the preeminent global academic credential, with searching implications for everything from global educational standards to measures of professional success.
Now think instead of the Yuan as the reserve currency of the globe and the dollar supplanted, with China rather than the United States enjoying that “exorbitant privilege.” China’s central bank, not America’s, would set the global economy’s tempo. Think of China’s sanctions power equaling America’s today. Think of China dominating fractious and economically anemic Europe as well, with Beijing acting as gatekeeper and term-setter for access to the enormous market of Asian consumers. Standing alone in comparison to such a dominant China, America would no longer be the decision maker; it would have to conform to China’s preferences.
And forget lobbying Congress to change how social media companies are regulated; Americans would have to petition Chinese officials and regulators, with far less chance of accountability, let alone hope of success. Today’s internet has been decisively shaped by the United States, with its strong preference for open and broadly “liberal” ideas. Europe, meanwhile, focuses on privacy protections. Yet the People’s Republic of China values neither. Beijing represses speech on its own internet and allows little if any privacy protection. If China set the rules of the internet, Beijing would naturally tend to shape them in such directions. The same would go for everything from surveillance to speech controls to banking. It already uses technology, including facial recognition, big data, and artificial intelligence to impose and police so-called “social capital” scores for its own citizens. Why would famously nationalistic China treat foreigners more leniently?
China could insist on labor, information, regulatory, environmental, and legal changes that decisively shaped Americans’ lives. The professional and probably much of the personal lives of Americans would be shaped—if not determined—by Chinese leaders.
Instead of being the world’s great large economy, the pinnacle of mass prosperity, and the master of its own fate, America would become something much less. Americans would likely remain more prosperous than many countries, but they would live under China’s economic shadow. Chinese companies would gobble up or render dependent American and European, Japanese, and South Korean companies, leaving America’s economic fortunes to be decided upon in China. China could insist on labor, information, regulatory, environmental, and legal changes that decisively shaped Americans’ lives. The professional and probably much of the personal lives of Americans would be shaped—if not determined—by Chinese leaders.
Importantly, China need not create a great territorial empire to achieve this position of hegemony over Asia and, from there, a predominant global position. Rather, it simply needs to exert enough influence over the countries of the region with respect to their important economic and strategic decisions. A hegemonic China would not directly rule over countries within its sphere, but those countries would follow Beijing’s line on key economic, political, and military matters or else. In practice, such subordinated states would orient their trade, economic, and regulatory policies to China’s demands, and avoid provoking Beijing by making or sustaining alliances or independent trading relationships with rivaling states, above all, the United States.
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The writer is an independent political analyst who writes on politics, political and human-centred figures, current and international affairs