Thinking about China

Mark Helprin at the Claremont Institute points out two obvious things. The first is the rise of China, not only as an economic power but also as a technological and industrial power. The second is the apparent lack of any US strategy to come to terms with that fact. The combination of the two can lead to disastrous effects. Most people remember Yamamoto's famous warning to the Japanese High Command about America's industrial power. Today Yamamoto could repeat his warning, but with a different set of names. American American shipbuilding is in rapid decline while Chinese capacity is in ascendance. The National Defense Magazine writes: "The commercial outlook for U.S. shipbuilders is bleak. They are unable to compete on the global commercial market due to high material and labor costs as well as lower productivity. Labor costs are kept artificially high by continued union resistance to employee cross-training and shipyard reluctance to invest in automated production tooling. " In a world where American power is founded on maritime supremacy that may be unhealthy. Helprin vividly describes the Chinese fleet in being lying in its industrial capacity:

China hasn't the amphibious or aerial lift for a successful invasion of Taiwan, but its shipyards, which produced 220,000 tons of shipping in 1980 and 13 million tons in 2006 (with 20 million projected for 2010), and its fast-growing aircraft industries, could, if directed, make this a moot point in a very short time.

The same trends are present in many other traditional indicators of national strength. Which is not to say the US has been standing still; it has grown in strength too, but in different ways. Thus the relationship between the two countries has become asymmetric while growing in the net more equal.

That growing equality has monumental implications. Yet China remains off the Washington policy radar whose picture is based on a changeless mezzotint of the postwar world. But that world has gone and America has not yet re-adjusted its mental picture to reflect the new one. What should be America's objectives in a world where the West is in relative decline?

Our object is not to regain the power we and the Europeans had over China in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but, now that things are in flux, to keep China from attaining a similar power over us. This necessitates keeping the correlation of forces in our favor, not to dominate but for the sake of stability in maintaining a consistent position and lest the rapid evening encourage China to push past us and beyond. To the protest that it is too early to be concerned, the fitting answer is that if anything it is too late.

The core problem the US faces in coping with China is what to do about the huge differential in labor costs. Simply put, China can do a lot of things more cheaply than America. Helprin suggests that the gap has traditionally been bridged with the forces of automation and innovation. But leaving aside the question of whether this strategy would work, those bare-knuckle solutions would be hard sell to an intellectual elite that instinctively recoils from dog-eat-dog change; and whose main worries are in any case about providing everyone with a sense of "self-esteem", avoiding anthropogenic Global Warming and spreading Enlightenment. It's hard to imagine how a policy elite which cannot even approve the drilling of new oil wells or the construction of nuclear power plants can seriously contemplate competing with China. And yet China's strategy is in large part based upon a playbook that America wrote -- and forgot.

The irony is that the very mechanism by means of which China is mounting its challenge—growth that elevates per capita income and provides higher and higher discretionary margins—has been ours for so long that we have forgotten it. It is what made us the arsenal of democracy during World War II, and the discretionary margins are now so much greater that even at rest our potential dwarfs what it was then.

But the potential will remain untapped if there is no will to tap it. The principal obstacle to thinking about China may be the national elite's obsession with itself and its petty hobbyhorses. Like the great courts of Europe in the late 19th century, its members have been so secure for so long they have forgotten that the sun does not revolve around their earth. Helprin asks who in Washington will awake from this dreamlike trance.

And yet what candidate is alert to this? Who asserts that our sinews are still intact? That we can meet any challenge with our great and traditional strengths? That beneath a roiled surface is a power almost limitless yet fair, supple yet restrained? Who will speak of such things in time, and who will dare to awaken them?

Alas, probably nobody. There's a widespread body of opinion that sees America's strength itself as the source of world problems and welcomes the ascendancy of China and other nations -- even of multilateral institutions like the United Nations -- in relative power to the US. In that universe the best course in nearly every crisis is for America to do nothing, but only after pre-emptively apologizing. Helprin's thinking on China will have no resonance. But Alfred E. Neuman's might: what -- me -- worry?


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