ROOM AT THE TOP
“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”. Even kings, Shakespeare observed, could be insecure, fearful of rivals who coveted their throne. He might also have extended this observation to powerful nations. Over the centuries most eventually faced serious challenges. This was surely true in the ancient past which featured the rise and fall of one civilization after another.. In modern Europe, did not France and England battle for centuries, then watch as Spain ruled the roost, only to be displaced by the English who in turn contended with the Dutch?
As the 19th Century progressed, the United States seemed destined to assert itself on the world stage, which it succeeded in doing by early in the 20th Century. But by then other rivals could not be ignored. Japan, with its decisive victory in the Russo-Japanese War, thrust itself into the mix. And so did Germany. Indeed it challenged arch rivals England and France in World War I and might have won had the U. S. not joined the Allies. After that Russia, long a sleeping giant began to stir. After helping to vanquish Germany in World War II it emerged as a major challenger to U.S. supremacy in the years thereafter.
A top dog nation does not welcome a rival or relish the competition. Mutual suspicions inevitably emerge. Each assumes the worst of the other. The reigning power seeks to protect advantages long enjoyed while the rival demanding recognition and respect moves aggressively to assert its “rightful” place in the new world order.
This brings us to our current state of affairs in which a rival to United States dominance has emerged. The contender – China – waits in the wings, eager to go on stage in a starring role. China does have the credentials. It brought its huge population under control, educated impressive numbers of its people, lifted hundreds of millions into the middle classes, constructed an impressive infrastructure, transformed itself into a manufacturing behemoth and export dynamo. It has, in a relatively few years become the second largest economy in the world. Most concede it will soon be number one.
For centuries China could be ignored, bullied or made to feel inferior. No more. Sensing a serious rival anti-Chinese sentiment has grown in the U.S. We note with dismay an enlarged Chinese presence around the world, as its representatives attempt to buy up local resources and dispense funds in an effort to cultivate the goodwill of foreign leaders. It stands accused of unfair trade practices as it subsidizes exports and manipulates its currency to keep export prices low and undermines our own products, violates our patent laws and introduces obstacles that limit the sale of American goods to China. Chinese leaders, moreover, are rapidly expanding the country’s military capabilities and aggressively pursuing the nation’s supposed claims over certain Pacific islands, as well as Southeast Asia in general.
Is a showdown just a matter of time? Rivalry among top tier nations often results in military confrontation, though the U.S. and the Soviet Union avoided such a clash , managed to battle each other through surrogates. Remember that we’ve already fought the Chinese – directly in Korea and indirectly in Viet Nam.
Still, Armageddon need not be around the corner; significant linkages are in place (including several million Chinese-Americans). American stores stock a multitude of inexpensive Chinese products while our manufacturers and service providers salivate over their prospects in the Chinese marketplace. China purchases our Treasury bonds and accordingly has good reason to maintain stable relations with us. Chinese students occupy more and more seats in American universities, while American tourists flock to China.
And then those who fear a growing challenge from China should realize that all is not well there. A restive population with access (however limited) to the world-wide net is beginning to speak and act out and demand more freedoms. Rising expectations coupled with a slowing economy could prove destabilizing, especially as Communist party leadership is increasingly perceived to be a self-perpetuating corrupt elite. Population shifts into the cities may produce severe dislocations while a distressingly polluted environment erodes the quality of life for hundreds of millions. These Chinese leaders certainly have their hands full (though at such time times militant, militaristic rhetoric often serves as a useful diversion).
Still and all, might there not be room at the top? Wouldn’t it be a relief to offload some of our responsibilities around the world, share them with another influential nation? Have we not been carrying the burden by ourselves long enough?