China Vs USA
A very successful, virtual, Drink & Think the other day, with Martin Wolf of The Financial Times as the Guest of Honour, was held – as this annual event always is – under the Chatham House Rule. What follows, therefore, is attributed to nobody taking part. It is my own thoughts and conclusions, after the event. Others taking part may – almost certainly will – come to different conclusions.
Two strong personalities, President Trump and President Xi, face off against each other. For different reasons, both wish to demonstrate to their respective constituencies that they are top dog in a battle of egos and an engagement of political survival. Trump wants to win an election in the United States in November. Xi wants to win uninterrupted reign over China for as long as he chooses – or is chosen.
Trump wants his legacy to be that he ‘Made America Great Again’. Xi wants to consolidate China’s economic, technological and social progress of the last half century and take it forward to become the greatest power on earth. In some respects, it already is. Both Presidents need to capture the hearts and minds of their people in the short term as well as the medium term.
President Xi has already established himself for what may be a long reign. Life is full of hazards and accidents, of course, so nothing is guaranteed. One thing, however, is. The stronger he gets the greater will be his control of China and the more the West will need him to remain in power, provided always that he doesn’t do too much to upset the Western order.
If President Trump is re-elected for another four years it will be an unmitigated disaster, with world trade shrinking even further, Covid-19 repeating again and again, climate change getting totally out of control and American society at odds with itself over Black Lives, leading even to the possibility of a form of civil war in the United States.
I hope with all my heart that President Trump is not re-elected.
If Joe Biden wins the Presidential election in November, with Kamala Harris as his Vice-President, a somewhat rosier picture may emerge. It can’t be all that rosy. Biden / Harris still have to take at least half the voters with them in a society riddled with prejudice against the blacks, substantially denying climate disaster, failing to cope with Covid-19 and unable to swiftly undo the trade disagreements set up by Trump.
Moreover, the technological developments already allowing intimate surveillance of each other’s behaviour, and capable of unimaginable development with the growth of artificial intelligence, will require trade and intellectual property competition little short of military war. In tactical bravado moves accidents could easily set off a weapon of mass destruction. Such an event might presage a major population and ecological disaster, culling billions of the world’s people.
Both Trump and the Biden / Harris presidencies therefore face a formidable task in dealing with a commercially and technologically aggressive China and a rousing American response. Trump might lead to earlier disaster than Biden / Harris.
The scenario set out above could stretch for many years. The pressures created by it could become overwhelming and unmanageable within the existing political structures. The knowledge that both sides face this possibility is a glimmer of light in this dark tunnel. Assuming that neither President Xi nor President Biden / Harris are personally suicidal they could strategically draw back from confrontation at any point along the path.
Such drawing back would demand a modus vivendi to be put in place. If mutually observed it might last for a thousand years. That would be long enough for humans to decide who they want to be – and how much of that decision is practical. I think this is the likely scenario. Mutual mass destruction could, of course, be brought about by military accident, by climate change, by rampant virus spreading out of control or by starvation of major parts of the globe, including China.
But the dance of technology suggests that humans will be able to deal with these threats, by which time we may be colonising another planet.
You might think this a gloomy scenario. I regard it as a challenging one. Humans have been increasingly adaptable as science has developed to teach us who and how we are. Ever since the use of the atomic bomb we have worked hard to prevent any repeat use of both it and its successor bombs.
Humans grew up substantially after they released this massive power.
The race is about electorates becoming politically aware. They should be encouraged and educated to do so responsibly.
We now have the means to educate everyone, quite quickly.
We should do so without delay.