Last May I wrote of the importance of transformational leadership in negotiating the long-term strategic relationship between the U. S. and China in order to avoid what Graham Allison has named the “Thucydides Trap” in his compelling book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?. In October at the Hudson Institute, Vice President Mike Pence significantly turned up the urgency of this question with a speech that seemed to take what has already been characterized as Cold War II to a new level. Walter Russell Mead, who was in attendance, said the speech sounded like something Ronald Reagan could have delivered against the Soviet Union, a “tear down this wall” kind of broadside.
Here are some key phrases: “Through its Made in China 2025 policy the Communist Party has set its sights on controlling 90% of world’s most advanced industries…..Beijing has directed its bureaucrats and businesses to obtain American technology by any means possible…..America had hoped that economic liberalization would bring China into a greater partnership with us and the world. Instead, China has chosen economic aggression, which has in turn emboldened its growing military”. In another part of the speech, he alleged that China is embarked on a comprehensive effort to “interfere in the domestic policies of this country”, including the 2018 elections and the re-election of Donald Trump. And he made it clear in no uncertain terms that the U. S. would remain the Pacific’s dominant power and identified China as the challenger.
These allegations have had the immediate effect of putting the trade disputes between the two countries in a much broader and more ominous context, and it has been very surprising to me that there hasn’t been more attention paid to this speech and its ramifications for the U. S. beyond the analytical class. Frankly, I welcome this new rhetoric; the heat needed to be turned up and the emphasis needed broadening well beyond a dispute based on balance of trade to the geopolitical conflict that is has become. And there is growing evidence that the Trump administration is positioning itself to allocate resources for serious follow up on Pence’s assertions. Meanwhile, the President has agreed to a 90-day “truce” in implementing tougher tariffs on Chinese imports pending China’s response to the most serious violations and threats.
The critical need now is that this be an “all hands” effort on behalf of America’s interests, and I wonder what can truly be expected from U. S. corporate interests when the heat really gets turned up on policies that might conflict with Chinese market access. And needless to say the the national security implications are huge, even existential, and totally dependent on support from the private sector—are you listening Google?
Transformational, indeed. We won Cold War I and we can’t afford to lose this one. I hope we’re up to it.