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A US-China trade war? There’s much more at stake for the world than just “trade”

Depending on the day, hour and mood of the American President, we are now in a U.S.- China trade war — or not.

But there’s much more than trade at stake in this confrontation. It may well foreshadow tectonic shifts in global geopolitical power.

The Economist has just summarized it quite well:

“Fighting over trade in not the half of it. The United States and China are contesting every domain, from semiconductors to submarines and from blockbuster films to lunar exploration. The two superpowers used to seek a win-win world. Today winning seems to involve the other lot’s defeat … it is hard to say where commerce ends and national security begins…

“It is a kind of cold war that could leave no winners at all…The potential for catastrophe looms” 

“A new kind of cold war” .

The staid, right-of-center Economist does not throw wordslike “catastrophe” about easily – or often. In this case it has taken a very measured assessment of an epic development in global geopolitics — the rise of a major new competitor challenging a well-entrenched leading global power.

It’s happened many times in world history. And it usually does not end well. The vast devastation and loss of many millions of lives in the two twentieth-century world wars still resonate.

Recognizing this looming global upheaval  The Economist  counsels great caution: “Even if China and America stop short of conflict, the world will bear the cost as growth slows and problems are left to fester for lack of co-operation … Such an agenda demands statesmanship and vision. Just now these are in short supply…

“China and America desperately need to create rules to help manage the rapidly evolving era of superpower competition. Just now, both see rules as things to break.”

This twenty-first century superpower confrontation is addressed on a still greater scale by Oxford University Professor Peter Frankopan in his new book on “the dramatic and profound changes our world is undergoing right now — as seen from the perspective of the rising powers of the East..”

“The New Silk Roads The Present and Future of the World” . Without neglecting the obstacles China faces in its pursuit of increased global influence, Professor Frankopan nevertheless provides a timely and compelling, if controversial,”wake-up call” on that country’s progress ad plans.

A few of his insights that may prove startling for many readers – 


” [British General, summer 2018]: ‘We are living in an era of ‘constant competition about the evolving character of warfare … energy, cash, corrupt business practices, cyber-attacks, assassination, fake news, propaganda — and good old fashioned military intimidation’ are all being used as weapons.

“What constitutes  a weapon no longer has to go ‘bang.’ “


 ” … there are also underlying economic challenges that go far beyond the US-China trade relationship — [the present US-China] dichotomy is shaping the twenty first century.

 ”  Yan Xuetong, foreign policy expert: ‘We are moving away from a state in which international norms are led by western liberalism to a state in which international norms are no longer respected.’ “


 “The old world has suddenly woken up to the new world has been forming for decades … those most incentivized to apply the brakes are those with the most to lose – namely the West … now want a return to ‘normal’ and expect newcomers to take up their old positions in the world order.

“This does not sound promising for billions of people across Asia in particular.

 “We are already in the Asian century.”


 Ironically, the ultimate power of public opinion may eventually prove decisive in what may be becoming a tectonic shift in global power and influence. “Ironically” because for centuries the U.S. and China have been at opposite ends of the freedom of speech/freedom of the press spectrum and its political influence in societies.

 Today, that  keystone of a liberal, democratic society is in duress in the United States and is likely to be so at least until the 2020 presidential election. In China, a one-party autocratic society, public opinion, especially among younger adults, is neverthless finding its way to the surface.

A New York Times report this week is instructive  

“To Many Chinese, America Was Like ‘Heaven’. Now They’re Not So Sure” :

 ” ‘ Thirty years ago, a lot of people [in China] thought that going to the United States was like going to heaven,’ said Liu Peng, an education consultant in the eastern city of Qingdao. ‘But now people think the United States is falling behind while China is growing ‘…

 ” ‘ The older generation of Chinese both respect and fear the United States, we were brought up to think America was superior and we were the underdog’ said Wang Xiaodong, a nationalist writer. ‘But the perspective of young Chinese is different. They don’t respect you. Nor are they afraid of you.”

Many rightfully-proud Americans may well be able to mount arguably impressive rebuttals to what they might call Cassandra-like prophecies in these reports and analyses.
Still, consideration of author Peter Frankopan’s summary invocation of an ancient ruler’s admonition seems quite prudent:
” The King of Zhao in north-eastern China, who ruled  nearly 2,500 years ago, declared  that, “A talent for following the ways of yesteryear is not sufficient to improve the world today.”