This week will mark two significant anniversaries of world-changing events. The D-Day invasion of the allies on June 6, 1944 to free Europe from the Nazis was a peak of the American Century, for at the point of victory over national socialism followed by the defeat of Japanese militarism, the United States stood unchallenged as the dominant economic and military power, in a position to dictate the terms of world order. The other anniversary, on June 4, is the 3oth of the massacre of thousands of innocents in the brutal crackdown by the People’s Liberation Army of peaceful protestors for civil rights in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, an event which in hindsight should have convinced U. S. and allied leaders of the true intentions and underlying principles of the regime of the rising China and the degree to which this regime would be on a collision course with the reigning world power.
I touched on this confrontation briefly in January of this year in a mention of Graham Allison’s book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?, and comments on Vice President Mike Pence’s speech last October which turned up the heat on this question. I am not suggesting that we are headed for a hot war, but I am suggesting that this is not primarily about a trade deal that can be consummated in short order so that everyone can go back to their business as usual. This is a major long-term clash between two incompatible systems–free market democracy vs. a mercantilist/authoritarian/often criminal state, and only one system will survive intact. This is a fight about whose century the 21st will be–who will define it, what model will prevail–and at the end of the day we’re asking China to place its entire business model on the table for negotiation; every component is at stake, from the colonialism of the “Belt and Road” initiative, to the building of islands in the South China Sea, to the rampant theft of technology, to the cyberspace and academic espionage, etc., etc.
This is where the trail has led us, from mass murder with impunity at Tiananmen Square through Bill Clinton’s ill-advised recognition of China with most-favored nation trade status, sponsorship of China’s membership in the World Trade Organization, and the pipe dream of every U. S. administration that China’s assimilation into the world order of nations would produce advancement toward democratic and human rights ideals. I am critical of several aspects of Donald Trump’s approach to the crisis–he doesn’t understand trade economics, he treats our much-needed allies with contempt, and maybe withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership was at least premature, etc.–but Trump is the first U. S. President to seriously confront China across the board, as with the moral clarity of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech this week honoring the “heroes of the Chinese people” at Tiananmen. The Chinese leaders know this and the U. S. Chamber of Commerce had better get used to it–the game is over and they can no longer have it both ways.