from Asia Unbound

China, the U.S., and "Global Dominance"

December 16, 2010

Blog Post

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United States

Diplomacy and International Institutions

Chinese policemen salute during a ceremony in Shanxi province.
Chinese policemen salute during a ceremony in Shanxi province. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)

Yesterday I received a call from a reporter asking me to talk about China, the U.S., and rare earths. I offered a few thoughts, trying to point out that the rare earths story was not really about U.S.-China relations but rather about China’s strength in a particular market and what options existed for the rest of the world to avoid getting caught short as China enforced its increasingly tough export quotas.

She then asked me to discuss Shanghai’s globally top-ranked test scores, Chinese holdings of U.S. treasuries, China’s push in clean energy and anything else that would contribute to her readers’ understanding of how China was going to “take global dominance away from the United States.”

Instead of building a case for the “global dominance” (and in any case, what does that mean?) of China, I suggested that she look with some degree of nuance, perspective, and context to try to understand each of the building blocks she believed would contribute to China’s “global dominance.”

To take just one example, Shanghai test scores relative to U.S. scores is not big news: the U.S. has been decrying the state of its math and science education for more than a decade and many countries have been eating our lunch the entire time. Yet the U.S. still manages to lead the way in many areas of scientific and technological innovation (see my colleague Adam Segal’s new book, Advantage, for how we do this and can keep doing it).

The real question, therefore, is why might those test scores matter? How might we fall short? I could imagine, for example, that if legions of scientifically uninformed people were elected to Congress, scientific funding and science-based issues such as climate change might get short shrift. (Oops, that already happened. )

Seriously, the real point is that it takes time to think through issues and bring a comparative or historic point of view to bear in order to provide context. For those involved in “informing the public,” the bar should be particularly high. The United States is in an economic mess, and it is tempting to see China behind every door. This is a mistake on two fronts. First, as China’s economy and military grow, its policies will certainly matter to the United States more and more; but let’s take our time to understand precisely how and why before we raise alarm bells on every front. Second, and even more important, seeing China everywhere enables us to avoid looking in the mirror -- which is where we really ought to be focused in order to fix our problems.