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China, the U.S., and “Global Dominance”

by Elizabeth C. Economy
December 16, 2010

Chinese policemen salute during a ceremony in Shanxi province.

Chinese policemen salute during a ceremony in Shanxi province. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)

Yesterday I received a call from a reporter asking me to talk about China, the U.S., and rare earths. I offered a few thoughts, trying to point out that the rare earths story was not really about U.S.-China relations but rather about China’s strength in a particular market and what options existed for the rest of the world to avoid getting caught short as China enforced its increasingly tough export quotas.

She then asked me to discuss Shanghai’s globally top-ranked test scores, Chinese holdings of U.S. treasuries, China’s push in clean energy and anything else that would contribute to her readers’ understanding of how China was going to “take global dominance away from the United States.”

Instead of building a case for the “global dominance” (and in any case, what does that mean?) of China, I suggested that she look with some degree of nuance, perspective, and context to try to understand each of the building blocks she believed would contribute to China’s “global dominance.”

To take just one example, Shanghai test scores relative to U.S. scores is not big news: the U.S. has been decrying the state of its math and science education for more than a decade and many countries have been eating our lunch the entire time. Yet the U.S. still manages to lead the way in many areas of scientific and technological innovation (see my colleague Adam Segal’s new book, Advantage, for how we do this and can keep doing it).

The real question, therefore, is why might those test scores matter? How might we fall short? I could imagine, for example, that if legions of scientifically uninformed people were elected to Congress, scientific funding and science-based issues such as climate change might get short shrift. (Oops, that already happened. )

Seriously, the real point is that it takes time to think through issues and bring a comparative or historic point of view to bear in order to provide context. For those involved in “informing the public,” the bar should be particularly high. The United States is in an economic mess, and it is tempting to see China behind every door. This is a mistake on two fronts. First, as China’s economy and military grow, its policies will certainly matter to the United States more and more; but let’s take our time to understand precisely how and why before we raise alarm bells on every front. Second, and even more important, seeing China everywhere enables us to avoid looking in the mirror — which is where we really ought to be focused in order to fix our problems.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Mark Tully

    While I certainly won’t argue that we should be fixing ourselves before complaining about China, I think that people are justified in having some concern about China.

    Rising great powers have historically ended up in a conflict with status quo powers. This combined with the fact that what can’t go on forever won’t, meaning that we continue to burden the Chinese with our debt and they continue to take it because turning us down would be bad for them too. Eventually, the costs of taking our debt will become too high for them. To be concerned about this relationship and why we’re practically selling ourselves to a country that openly dislikes us and that will, in all likelihood, get sick of our irresponsibility.

  • Posted by jiang

    Mark Tully,
    China doesn’t openly dislike the United States. It’s the United States that blows hot and cold air over the Chinese. If you feel that China is displaying the dislike and you look deeper, you will always find that it is a response to some hostile gestures coming from the United States. China is sending hundreds and thousands of their sons and daughters to the United States to get educated, why on earth they do this if they really dislike the United States. In China we have the saying “warm face meets with a cold bottom”. The warm face is China and the cold bottom is the United States. I am deeply disturbed about ordinary American’s ignorance about the world affair. If not for the intelligent people like Ms Elizabeth C. Economy, I can’t imagine how the United States could be a superpower as it is today.

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