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As the U.S. and China continue to face off daily over technology and other issues, I have been listening, as my dog Max and I walk each day, to the brilliant History of Rome podcast series by Mike Duncan (2007-12).  One thing is clear from the endless wars which Rome undertook over the course of a millennium against the Latins, the Etruscans, the Samnians and the Carthaginians during the Republic; against each other during the Civil Wars; and against the Greeks, the Syrians, the Parthians and others during the early Empire (which is as far as I’ve gotten so far) – wars were started as often as a result of misreading – or cynically exploiting– an opponents’ real intentions as they were from any meeting of minds over the actual need for conflict. (Mind you – we’re talking here about the miscalculations that get conflicts started, not the logic which takes over once military actions have been initiated).

With that in mind, I am reminded of a March 2019 article by Katherine Epstein, a member of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study.  This article gives a clear overview of the attitudinal and behavioral parallels marking America’s 18th c. rise in a British-led world order and China’s emergence in the U.S.-led post-WWII global system.  A common structural dynamic is at play in both instances.

To Understand China, Look to America’s History

In challenging Britain’s hegemony a century ago, U.S. tactics look similar to Beijing’s today.

By Katherine C. Epstein
March 19, 2019 7:15 p.m. ET
Wall Street Journal

There’s been a good deal of hand-wringing in the U.S. over efforts by the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei to replace U.S. suppliers of advanced equipment and wire the world with its 5G network. Most analysis of China’s strategy turns on the conviction that the Chinese are trying to challenge U.S. commercial and geopolitical hegemony—they steal U.S. technology and then sell their plagiarized equipment at a lower price. Worse, they seek to build an alternative, China-led global telecom infrastructure, positioning Beijing to spy on the users and capture yet more U.S. commerce.

As a historian, I’m struck by the incompleteness of this analysis. Two crucial pieces are missing.

The first is any sense that the threat posed by Chinese control of a global telecom infrastructure might not be limited to espionage or (that other favorite metaphor) a “cyber Pearl Harbor.” The potential danger may be wider and deeper—and the World War I era shows why.

Before that war, like today, the global economy was highly integrated. This was the first era of globalization. Advanced industrial, urbanized societies depended on international trade, requiring uninterrupted access to the infrastructure that girded the global economic commons. Interruptions to that access had the potential to cause economic derangement, rapidly leading to social and political instability. In other words, control of the infrastructure conferred commercial advantage and it could also be weaponized.

A century ago, Britain acted on this insight. In addition to eavesdropping on enemy and neutral communications, the government acted to regulate the British firms that dominated the services necessary to conduct global trade: the global communications network, the financial-services industry (including commercial credit and marine insurance) and oceanic transportation. Britain used its control over the infrastructure of global trade not simply to spy on its enemy, nor to strike enemy military assets, but to mount a systematic assault on the whole of an enemy’s economy—in 21st-century parlance, a massive denial-of-service attack against enemy society.

Returning to the present, both the espionage model, which refers to targeted state spying, and the cyber-Pearl Harbor analogy, which refers to an essentially conventional military attack, fail to capture the systemic and social qualities of a certain type of attack. In this context, reflect on Russia’s efforts to interfere with U.S. elections. Partisanship aside, Moscow has managed, at relatively low cost, to reduce the confidence that Americans have in each other and the electoral process. It waged a successful psy-op, compromising not material resources but social confidence. Its campaign showed that foreign countries can manipulate information within global networks to sow distrust within American society.

What would a scaled-up version of this attack look like? What if it were carried out over a China-dominated information network?

The second missing piece is awareness that if China is trying to challenge (or escape) U.S. hegemony by stealing American technology and building an alternative global telecommunications infrastructure, this would be analogous to what the U.S. tried to do vis-à-vis Britain, then the global hegemon, and the other great powers in the World War I era. Americans tend to forget how powerful Britain was and how weak the U.S. remained before World War I.

In its drive for world status, America routinely pilfered foreign technology well into the 20th century, and it gained considerable strategic advantage from its theft. The 1912 Supreme Court case Crozier v. Krupp, which formally extended the power of eminent domain to intellectual property, concerned a German gun-carriage design the U.S. Army had plagiarized. That same year, a U.S. naval officer walked off with the plan for the British navy’s super-secret long-range torpedo. During World War I, Washington expropriated German chemical intellectual property held in the U.S., providing an enormous boon to America’s chemical industry.

In World War II, the U.S. received huge inflows of scientific and technological knowledge from Britain, then slapped secrecy restrictions on subsequent developments to prevent any flow back to Britain. Many more examples could be adduced. Historically, it might be said, Americans are an imitative people.

The U.S. came to appreciate the significance of controlling global economic infrastructure when Britain’s campaign of economic warfare against Germany in World War I caused huge collateral damage to the American economy. Companies like RCA worked hand-in-hand with the U.S. Navy to build a global telecommunications grid—perhaps similar to the way Huawei, run by a former Chinese army officer, may be working hand-in-hand with the Chinese army.

Wall Street cooperated with the U.S. government to develop a modern financial-services industry deliberately intended to help New York displace London as the world’s financial capital—perhaps similar to the way China has developed its own Swift payment-clearing system. Woodrow Wilson’s administration attempted to build an oceangoing merchant marine so the U.S. wouldn’t have to rely on Britain’s—perhaps similar to the way China is attempting to increase its control over the global oceangoing merchant marine.

In short, a century ago, the U.S. was the China of the age: an up-and-coming revisionist nation chafing against the established powers, importing and pirating what it could, free-riding on the security provided by the existing hegemon, and legitimizing its behavior with the pious conviction that it was on the right side of history. Could it be that the Chinese understand U.S. history better than Americans do?

It’s easy to be moralistic about China, but in the quest to find a sound U.S. strategy, we need less pearl-clutching and more imagination. Rising powers have compelling strategic incentives to control the sinews of global economic activity as well as to acquire foreign technology. Americans and their allies should ask themselves whether they would rather live in a world under U.S. or Chinese hegemony—and what they can do about it.

Ms. Epstein is a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., an associate professor of history at Rutgers University-Camden, and a director of the Naval Historical Foundation.

So, what’s the point? As  Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens, would be quick to point out, the British themselves had established their naval-led Empire by upending Spain’s Armada, which had earlier navigated its way to world power status by stealing from the Portuguese the same “rudders” (mariner’s handbook of written sailing directions) which the Portuguese had stolen from the then-ascendant Arab empire.

Well, the point is that, as the U.S. and China edge ever-closer to an actual or pretextual spark of open conflict, we need to stay sharp-eyed.  Given the incalculable costs which outright conflict between the U.S. and China would exact from both countries and the world, it is a political necessity and a moral imperative to keep an accurate picture of the structural situation in our field of vision.  This is where Katherine Epstein’s article is useful.  A picture with gray-tones is always more accurate and revealing than a simple black-and-white picture.  Harder to argue in a sound-bite perhaps, but more consistent with the leadership we need.



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