Stonewalling investigations into the origins of COVID-19 in Wuhan? A hundred new hardened intercontinental nuclear missiles silos? Dressing down U.S. diplomats on purported American racism?
Braggadocio about nuking non-nuclear and once-nuked Japan, if need be? Winks and nods that Taiwan will soon be Hong-Kongized?
Hacking into Western institutions?
No apologies for lying about the origins, nature, and transmissibility of the gain-of-function, virology-lab-engineered Wuhan SARS-CoV-2 virus? Or rather, an attitude of maybe/maybe not the virus leaked from a military-related lab, “So what are you going to do about it—this time or next”?
Recently China has sought to ramp up its now accustomed bullying and intimidation of the Western world, still reeling from a Chinese-born coronavirus.
Yet its new global badgering is as much predicated on its potential as it is on its actual power, at least in classical terms of a global hegemon. Even in our postmodern electronic age, the real stuff of an ascendant civilization remains constitutional stability, fuel, food, economic strength, defense, strategic security, and education. In all those areas, is China really on course to overtake us?
Beneath the Veneer of Strength
A good indicator of the demographic advantage of large nations is not absolute numbers (otherwise India and China would have been sharing world power decades ago) but median age. Even in our increasing era of shrinking Western families, by 2050 the median age in America will be 44 years, but 56 in China. Indeed, China may already have 150 million residents over 65, nearly half the current population of the United States—at the very time the Chinese family is becoming Westernized, and the elderly increasingly dependent on the state.
There are currently more smokers in China than there are people in the United States. And Beijing is on a collision course with all sorts of costly expenditures for a population that might be characterized as excessively elderly and unhealthy, and yet never more expectant of quality state health and long-term care.
China’s population density is almost five times greater than that of the United States, in a country in which the effects on its cramped population from natural and man-made disasters—floods, draughts, earthquakes, unclean air, industrial waste, and polluted water—resemble more an early 20th-century than a 21st-century nation.
We talk of the Chinese economic juggernaut. And indeed it may one day soon overwhelm us. But currently nearly 1.5 billion Chinese produce only 60-65 percent of the goods and services of 330 million Americans. In terms of fuel, the U.S. economy produces three times as much oil and five times as much natural gas for a population a little more than a fifth of China’s. More importantly, in terms of social stability, Americans enjoy a per capita income four times greater than their Chinese counterparts.
Our Pentagon suffers from a huge overhead in clumsy and wasteful procurements, unsustainable retirement pensions and benefits, and often poor weapon investment choices. Too many of its top brass and retired officer corps have become politicized. Many of our four-stars seem more attuned to leveraging politically correct promotions and post-retirement corporate board memberships than focusing on military readiness and deterrence.
But that said, America still spends three times as much per year on defense as the Chinese. In a strategic sense, we should be worried that China is building 100 new hardened silos for nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles pointed at America. Yet currently, the United States has about 20 times the number of deliverable nuclear weapons as China.
In terms of the strategic nuclear club, China’s only ally is mercurial North Korea. In contrast, nuclear France, India, and the UK are staunch American allies, while Russia and Pakistan—distant from us, but bordering China—remain unpredictable and opportunistic neutrals.
The United States has no serious nearby strategic rival, in terms of either conventional or nuclear capability. Yet a glance at a map of China reveals the world’s most unstable neighborhood. It shares borders with hostile and nuclear India, Islamic and nuclear Pakistan, and often unfriendly and nuclear Russia—in addition to unstable countries like Afghanistan and its client North Korea, and mostly hostile Vietnam, along with nearby island nations like the rearming Japan and the Philippines. In terms of international crises, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, in theory (and if necessary) could become nuclear powers in less than a year.
Some 380,000 Chinese students enroll in American universities, a group ten times larger than their American counterparts currently studying in China. And why not? In various higher-education surveys of the top 20 universities in the world, American campuses rank preeminent—usually with 15-18 universities—such as Caltech, MIT, Stanford, Harvard, and Yale, along with the huge public multi-campus universities such as the University of California, Michigan, and Texas systems. No Chinese universities are ranked in the top 20.
Americans do not enroll in China’s colleges for superior math and science instruction. The United States has a sick and ailing higher education system—but even with all its maladies—its math and sciences programs and professional schools in medicine and business remain vastly superior to China’s, even if heavily reliant on foreign students and resident aliens. If 1-2 percent of Chinese students enrolled in U.S. universities are de facto agents of the Chinese Communist Party, that percentage is probably matched by those who either wish to defect and never return home, or will return to China mesmerized by the U.S. system and become dissidents.
America is said to be unpopular abroad, but that is a relative term in relation to China. America’s immediate neighbors, Mexico, Canada, and most of Latin and South America are either allies, friendly, neutrals or, if hostile, weak. During the recent COVID-19 crisis, America was transparent about both its successes and setbacks. Its Operation Warp Speed vaccination program ensured the world the most rapidly developed, accessible, safe, and effective inoculations in the world. In dire contrast, secretive Chinese vaccinations were mostly ineffective and sometimes dangerous. No one still has any idea how many Chinese really died from the virus.
The Muslim world seethes at the incarceration of over one million Uighurs largely on the basis of their Muslim faith and ethnicity. The Western world is furious that China shut down all movement in and out of Wuhan, while allowing direct flights to European and American cities, on the apparent theory that Chinese must not be further exposed to the strange virus, but Europeans and Americans could—or should?—be. Africa is tiring of both insidious and overt Chinese racism, both in its major cities at home and among its corporate legionaries abroad.
There are many ways to adjudicate world rankings in food production: by sheer tonnage, by particular crops and staples, by export value, and by dollar worth. But in all such rankings the United States and China dominate world surveys—with the important caveat that America’s farms are feeding 330 million, China’s 1.5 billion. And the degree to which China has radically increased its agricultural output has been entirely dependent on its bought and acquired farming expertise from the United States and Europe.
China believes that unity, defined by harmonized language, race, and coerced allegiance, not diversity, is strength. Its authoritarian communist government suppresses any hint of unrest, unlike the American airing of the rioting, looting, arson, and protests seen in the United States in summer 2020 following the death of George Floyd. There is nothing publicly comparable in China to flights of collective madness such as “Russian collusion,” or “Trump derangement syndrome,” or the woke epidemic or the January 6 Capitol assault. But all that said, China is considered by most to be a xenophobic and racist nation. Its colonizing and overseas emissaries are about as welcome as the Soviet operatives of the 1950s.
In contrast, as long as the U.S. Constitution is not tampered with, America enjoys the stability and resilience of the world’s oldest constitutional and consensual system.
Note well, all the above characterize a Belt-and-Road, hyper-driven China versus a sleeping giant and complacent United States. Indeed, it is uncanny how closely both countries resemble the relative global status of, and relationships between, Imperial Japan and America circa 1938-40.
Westernization? Japan, after the introduction of American and European visitors, in the latter 19th century rapidly industrialized and Westernized its economy and military, and eventually rejected a brief and failed experiment with constitutional government. It sent hundreds of thousands of students to Europe, and to a lesser extent the United States, to master nautical and aviation engineering, and army and naval organization, logistics, and procurement. The immediate dividend was its shocking defeat of Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 and a world class military following World War I.
By 1938 Japan had coerced and bullied its Asian neighbors with the canard that they shared anti-colonialist, anti-Western—and kindred Asian—values. By 1941, its navy was in number and quality superior to the American 7th fleet. In terms of fighter planes, carriers, torpedoes, and destroyers, one could argue that Japan enjoyed qualitative and quantitative superiority in the Pacific even earlier.
A prickly Japan nursed and exaggerated grievances—its supposedly unappreciated role in World War I, its meager scraps gleaned from the Versailles spoils, and the racism of Western powers. So too China talks nonstop about 19th century Western racism, colonialism, and Japanese occupation in World War II, as it tries to construct an eternal victimhood that justifies its violation of world norms and impending retribution.
Overconfidence fueled Japanese hubris, while a supposedly depression-bound, isolationist, and inward-looking America was written off as decadent, flabby, and confused. By mid-1941 Japan essentially controlled half of China, southeast Asia, and eyed the recently orphaned European Pacific colonies, British Malaysia and Burma, and the U.S.-controlled Philippines and Hawaii.
In the 1930s, returning visitors from Tokyo, in Tom Friedman-style, praised Japanese discipline, emphases on science, its collective efforts to create world-class infrastructure, and its affinity with fascist Germany and Italy as sort of paradigms of the future in contrast to the ailing and sloppy European and American democracies.
Then Nemesis followed from December 7, 1941. The United States, with essential help from Britain, while fighting primarily on a European front, in less than four years not merely defeated imperial Japan, and stripped it of its overseas possessions, but utterly destroyed it, occupied it, and force-fed it constitutional government, equality of the sexes, and land reform to ensure compatibility with its conquerors.
The lesson was that Japan was only superficially predominant in 1938-41 as a result of a breakneck single-minded effort to achieve parity with the West—preoccupied after World War I and spiritually exhausted. As now, the first Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere was a thin veneer masking Japanese inherent weakness: constitutional weakness, fuel and food weakness, economic weakness, strategic and military weakness.
Feet of Clay
China’s achievements and its stated intention to leverage them for regional and global dominance, like imperial Japan’s ascendence, should raise concern. But worry should not lead to western depression or resignation. In truth, in most categories of classical metrics of national strength, a much smaller United States is far superior to China—well apart from any consideration of Europe and its friends in Asia.
What we can learn from 1938-40 is to avoid matching China’s overblown rhetoric, while resting on past reputation and strength, much less to discount its insidiously emulative culture.
Instead the way to avoid a Pearl Harbor-like event and the avoidable bloody years that followed is to speak quietly and carry a club, not loudly with a twig. Had the United States early on confidently, with resolve, and quietly apprised Japan of the obvious—American industrial, economic, military, and scientific strength, if maximized, could bury Japan—war might have been avoided.
Wars, after all, can be prevented by deterrence. But deterrence is complex and multifaceted. It is predicated on the reality that all parties to differences understand the relative strength of each. China, dangerously for itself and the world, has convinced itself that its newfound power is not just superior to others, but soon destined to ensure global mastery. It so far has interpreted American magnanimity as weakness to be exploited, rather than outreach to be reciprocated.
In truth, China is far weaker than the United States. It should be politely reminded of that fact, as the United States carefully recalibrates deterrence based on its superior military and economic strength, iron resolve, and confidence in its institutions. All that will require a return of financial solvency, a renewed national unity and appreciation of American singularity, a commitment to stop pontificating to the world while reducing the clout of the U.S. military, and an end to the politicization of the U.S. officer corps.
The current Chinese Co-Prosperity Sphere is as dangerous—but also as vulnerable—as its failed Japanese predecessor.