I suppose it’s inevitable. We can’t ever just take China for granted — or North Korea for that matter. After all, it was easy to forget that North Korea actually had nuclear weapons just because the sanctions made Kim Jong Un, in particular, extremely nervous. Look at the tens of billions that Washington and Beijing spend to counter North Korea each year. The two capitals could slash that mutual enemy spending by more than half — just in North Korea.
China, in turn, has been the Obama administration’s most important threat. Because, even if it controls the North Korean economy, Chinese people would ultimately be the ones paying for the North Korean nuclear threat. I’m not sure they’ve had time to adjust to having nuclear weapons, much less to the fact that U.S. arms and diplomatic capabilities — including without a doubt naval superiority — are now more than matched by the Chinese. That’s because the world is changing so rapidly. China’s economy may be slowing. Yet by 2030, China will still have the world’s second-largest economy, second-largest military and also the world’s largest stash of U.S. assets. Who wants to be the first to blink?
And Chinese officials are starting to question why they would fire missiles into the South China Sea, angering neighbors and threatening to enrage Washington. Or rattle a few verbal American cages over President Donald Trump, only to get a stern rebuke from Trump, and yet be ignored. They don’t mind being weaseled into the international multilateral system, yet they are increasingly fed up with being had.
Does it really matter who is the U.S. president? Because as far as the Chinese government is concerned, nothing can be trusted. It is maniacally focused on isolating the United States, and it believes that the larger the echo chamber and the more self-confident the message, the better.
The American military and its Western allies are building the right kinds of alliances, but the Chinese are way ahead of us at forging their own alliances and forging relationships. For example, President Xi Jinping now has high-level meetings and major summits with French President Emmanuel Macron, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and British Prime Minister Theresa May, and he did this just this month. Meanwhile, his predecessors just couldn’t even raise an issue in high-level talks with the Chinese — even as China was pulling the United States and Europe into an economic and military war.
I fear we may have now entered into a new permanent state of high-stakes poker where Americans and Chinese will have to live with the costs of fighting and avoiding conflict because they simply don’t trust each other any more.
Here’s an example of why this is a problem. No one thought Pakistan would have nuclear weapons in the 1980s. Yet here we are, in China’s backyard, with conventional war on China’s northern border and China’s nuclear standoff with Pakistan in its south. The Chinese have now started to question how safe this Western nuclear umbrella really is. And they are growing cynical about why the Americans and Europeans don’t simply quit protecting Pakistan.
To take another example, the undersea cables that carry cell-phone traffic are being strangled because China has the most surveillance state on the planet. No one thought Russia would have nuclear weapons and Vladimir Putin would be a local warlord back in the ’80s. Who foresaw that a Saudi prince would lash out at his Shiite rivals in Yemen, destabilizing the region? And that a Wahhabi-Islamist militia led by a psychopath would take power in Myanmar?
Let’s be clear. In not a single case is there an unbroken path of success between the Cold War and the 21st century. Trump’s Washington has made the world worse. Vice President Mike Pence is leading a mixed team, with lots of overlapping points of view. Trump will fire people whom he doesn’t like, and then fire others who undercut him. Regardless of who controls the White House or Congress, America will always be susceptible to long periods of turbulence, domestic scandals and international rivalries that will test its character and capabilities.
But in all the instances where America has taken its eye off the ball — ignoring self-interests abroad and dealing with zero-sum competitors and enemies at home — it has fared worse than when the focus was on things that unite us.
At the end of the day, we need an America that doesn’t flip-flop between power struggles and focusing on the world. And the U.S. government doesn’t have to be the only player in the game. We need a government — an international community, if