In memory of Luis Martínez Fernández del Campo
The U.S. establishment managed to turn the Covid-19 pandemic into yet another point of contention and polarization. The issue joins a myriad of divisive factors that over the last decade and a half produced three polar opposite administrations: Obama’s, Trump’s, and now Biden’s.
Where there is practically no disagreement, however, is regarding the United States’ relationship with China. There’s almost absolute unity on that issue, reaching obsessive levels. It is a rare issue indeed on which Americans are not divided. Donald Trump and Barack Obama remain controversial figures and Joe Biden is yet to be defined. There is division over everything: from life’s most intimate issues -like abortion and marriage- to geopolitical issues, such as Russia and Europe, to trade and migration. Even the most trivial matters end up being a matter of dispute, all of which explain the delay in acting against the coronavirus. It is an issue that impacted the appointment the new head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the flagship U.S. institution in health matters. Today’s American society cannot agree on practically anything. Except China.
The dispute with China has many levels and facets, beginning with the trade war started by Trump but stemming from the loss of industrial jobs. Unlike Mexico, China used the plants that were installed on its soil to trigger an industrial transformation. From there all kinds of grievances, both real and imaginary, arise: the mandatory transfer of technology, the subsidies to state-owned enterprises, and the anti-foreign bias. Second, the U.S. blames the Chinese government for stealing technology, data, and secrets by hacking the internet. Third, and perhaps central to the perceived wrong, Americans feel betrayed –and worse, cheated- that China has not evolved in line with their expectations of it becoming a democracy. While China’s rulers surely never promised an evolution toward democracy in sync with its economic development, it was the West’s expectation when China became a member of the World Trade Organization in 2001.
China’s impressive growth in recent decades unleashed all matter of fervor among fans and critics alike. Some see China as the harbinger of the future and extol its authoritarian government as the solution to the problems both of countries and the world: if instead of debating and discussing in a democratic context, dreams The New York Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman, the U.S. had a government like China’s, it could tackle its problems (and those of the world, like climate change) with alacrity and determination.
Others, like Minxin Pei, view the Chinese system as unsustainable, while George Magnus sees a very difficult future, particularly due to Xi Jinping’s unwillingness to face the nation’s quandaries head-on, now compounded by the repercussions of the coronavirus and domestic anger left in its wake. Obviously, no one knows what will happen, and bets are all over the place.
The sum of all these differences, misunderstandings, and clashes of expectations has led to a virtual consensus in the U.S. of China as a geopolitical threat. Countless publications debate the implications of the new reality, which essentially come down to two: those who anticipate a growing confrontation vs. those who consider appeasement possible.
Leading the former is Graham Allison, who put on the table the notion that the U.S. and China face what he calls a “Thucydides trap”, a confrontation generated when a declining power tries to prevent an emerging one from displacing it. The other side, forever led by Henry Kissinger, raises not only the possibility, but the need for cooperation. This side argues that the relationship with China has nothing to do with the former USSR due to the multiple interactions that exist, and therefore advances that it is perfectly compatible to work where there are common interests and compete where there are differences, categorically denying the Thucydides trap’s validity. Kishore Mahbubani, a Singaporean diplomat, sets forth the details of what the concrete content of such an arrangement might be. Mahbubani’s text is arrogant and not very analytical, but is a clear example of how a compromise could be reached.
Americans, Kissinger wrote years ago, play chess, where the goal is to kill the king as quickly as possible; the Chinese play weiqi, the nature of which is to patiently build positions to overwhelm the enemy, without ever directly confronting him. It is not obvious to me who will win this game, but two things are clear: first, the result will affect us and second, Americans have not been very strategic and deliberate in this fight.
It’s a pity that we Mexicans are so lost that we lack the ability to see the enormous opportunity that the U.S.-China war represents for us. Another one that is going to get away.
* Luis Rubio is chairman of México Evalúa-CIDAC and former chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI). A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @lrubio