I can remember when people in the West feared invasion by starving hordes from an overpopulated China. In more recent years we have come to fear China’s growing economic power, which is now being transformed into assertive military power.
In an article in Foreign Affairs entitled The Geography of Chinese Power, the military journalist Robert Kaplan describes how China is building a strong navy with the intention of dominating the South China Sea, much as the USA dominates the Caribbean Sea.
Kaplan stated the Chinese within the next 10 or so years will be in a position to attack U.S. allies in eastern Asia, including Taiwan (which is in international law a part of China, but in fact an independent US ally). He called for a U.S. naval buildup to counter growing Chinese naval power.
But the USA cannot counter China’s strength merely by building more ships. We Americans have a trade deficit with China. We depend on foreigners, including the Chinese, to finance a significant portion of our national debt. Our economic position in the world depends on the willingness of the Chinese and other nations to do business in dollars. Much of our electronics production, which is crucial to national defense, is outsourced to China.
The Chinese are increasing their control of the world’s food supply, but not by invasion or immigration. Chinese corporations are buying up land in Africa, Australia and other parts of the world, and importing the food.
The weakness of China in the 19th century and the breakup of China in the early 20th century were aberrations. During most periods of history, China has been one of the world’s most powerful nations by reason of its geography, its demography and its patriarchal culture.
It is the world’s third largest nation in area, behind Russia and Canada. It has reserves of coal sufficient to maintain its industrial economy for many decades and maybe centuries, and it has access to the resources of central Asia and Russia.
It is the world’s largest nation in population, comparable to Europe or to the entire Western Hemisphere. This gives it a flexibility beyond what is possible to smaller nations. China could surpass the USA, Japan or Germany in the number of scientists and engineers, and in the number of highly-skilled technical workers, and still have reserves of more low-paid sweatshop workers than Bangladesh or Indonesia.
Finally China has a cultural unity based on patriarchal loyalties. These consist of, on the one hand, the filial obligation of the son, the subject and the student to obey the father, the ruler and the teacher. In return, there is the partenal obligation of the father, the ruler and the teacher to rightly guide their sons, their subjects and their students.
These cultural values have served the Chinese people well. Through more than 2,000 years, they have come together, after the fall of each dynasty, to form a strong and united state, which is what happened in the 20th century.
That’s not to deny that the Chinese have problems or that China’s continued rise is inevitable. There is a great deal of labor unrest, and there have been many strikes in sweatshop factories. Chinese companies may have expanded too fast, and may be unable to sell all that they can produce. The Chinese economy is subject to the same boom and bust economic cycle as ours is. I don’t claim to predict the future, except to say that China will be an important country no matter what.
The problem for us Americans is not the growing strength of China, but the eroding strength of our own country. Our power is a legacy of the past. As a nation, we are becoming like an old retired person who no longer earns wages and lives on savings.
We are not building for the future by investing in education, public health, scientific research and physical infrastructure. Neglect of vital needs is a worse threat to American power, including military power, than the size of the Chinese navy or anything else that foreigners are doing.