A Competition Involving Many Generations

China is building missile silos in the Gobi desert. The US has agreed to provide nuclear submarine technology to Australia, enraging the French, who are building a dozen diesel boats that they expected to sell to the Aussies. Xi Jinping last week rejected Joe Biden’s suggestion that the two arrange a face-to-face meeting to discuss their differences.  Clearly the US “pivot” to the Pacific is well underway.  Taiwan is the new hotspot, not to mention the Philippines and Japan.

The competition between China and the West is a contest, not a cold war.  Financial Times columnist Philip Stephens was the first in the circle of those whom I read to make this point.  “The Soviet Union presented at once a systemic and an existential threat to the West,” he wrote. “China undoubtedly wants to establish itself as the world’s pre-eminent power, but it is not trying to convert democracies to communism….”  The US is not trying to “contain” China so much as to constrain its actions.  He continued,

Beijing and Moscow want a return to a nineteenth century global order where great powers rule over their own distinct spheres of influence.  If the habits and the institutions created since 1945 mean anything, it has been the replacement of that arrangement with the international rule of law.

I’m not quite sure what Stephens means by “the international rule of law.”  The constantly changing Western traditions of freedom of action and thought? Is it true, as George Kennan told Congress in 1972, that the Chinese language contains no word for freedom? Is it possible that Chinese painters produced no nudes before the twentieth century?

The co-evolution of cultures between China and the West has been underway for 4,000 years, proceeding at a lethargic pace for most of that time. While the process has recently assumed a breakneck pace, it can be expected to continue for many, many generations before the first hints of consensus develop about a direction of change.

A hundred years?  Three hundred? Who knows? Already there is conflict. There may eventually be blood, at least in some corners of the earth. But the world has changed so much since 1945 that “cold war” is no longer a useful apposition. The existential threat today is climate change.

China’s cultural heritage is not going to fade away, as did Marxist-Leninism. The script of that drama, written in Europe in the nineteenth century, has lost much of its punch. Vladimir Putin has embraced the Russian Orthodox Church as a source of moral authority.  Xi Jinping has evoked the egalitarian idealism of Mao Zedong in cracking down on China’s high tech groups and rock stars, and strictly limiting the time its children are allowed to play video games.

But what is the Western tradition of “rule of law” that presumes to become truly international, eventually? Expect an answer some other day. Economic Principals is taking this Sunday off to cook pancakes for his Somerville grandchildren.

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