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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.

The motto of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars is ‘knowledge in the public service.’  This publication of mine from September 2012 is made available to the public free of charge here by downloadable PDF.

Book Cover

INTRODUCTION

At the time of my initial appointment to the Wilson Center, it struck me that something was missing from the general discussion in the United States concerning China’s embrace of clean energy and its implications for the United States. Much of what had been written embraced one of two polar positions. It seemed that the U.S.-China relationship in clean energy was either the best avenue for our cooperation or the measuring stick for our final competition. To a casual but concerned reader, the message was confusing. Newspaper “word-bites,” rather than informing discussion, lent anxiety to the existing confusion. The Woodrow Wilson Center provided me time and resources to examine the facts about clean technology (“cleantech”) and China. This was timely. Government agencies, think tanks and trade associations hoping to influence the policy debate began in February 2009 to release a spate of lengthy and in-depth policy reports, many of them technical in nature. We will learn in Chapter One how and why that gusher of information—which has thrown up literally shelf-feet of reports over the past year and a half— suddenly arose. However, for the purposes of this Introduction, it is simply worth noting that these policy tomes, for all that they did serve to provide data-based context to what had previously been “context-free” highly combustible reporting, did not offer much help to an interested non-specialist in making better sense of the main issues. At this “informed” end of the information spectrum, there was now almost too much information spread across too many specialized viewpoints. For a busy entrepreneur, investment manager, business professional, state or local government official, regional economic development analyst, scientific researcher, or engaged student—in fact, for any concerned “global citizen” wanting to understand the issues in a straightforward and streamlined way— it was famine or feast. A super-abundance of highly-specialized information provides not much more help in gaining an efficient grasp of the core issues than scattershot newspaper and media reporting had offered. Sustaining U.S.-China Clean Energy Cooperation 3 This book aims squarely at the “middle ground” of curiosity and interest in this broad topic. At the outset, I would like to be clear about three “operating assumptions” I have built in: Timeframe The three main chapters are concerned with the three-year period from mid-2008 to mid-2011. Except for one digression involving Five Year Plans which covers a 30-year period, this limitation on perspective actually helps bring the main subject matter into better focus. The bulk of the U.S. political effort to engage with China in the clean energy arena took shape during the 2008 Presidential Campaign and was further framed through policy initiatives of the Obama administration. For a new industrial ecosystem like “cleantech” or clean energy, what is relevant is defined by what has most recently happened. It is only in the Conclusion that the time-frame is pulled back to show that some of the dynamics described in preceding chapters are, in fact, related to deeper and more long-standing trends in the overall U.S.-China relationship. Structure As author, I have insisted on an organizational principle for presenting information which puts me at odds with the conventional approach of “Beltway” experts. In Washington, the tendency is to run all relevant information through what I will call the “policy blender” and to present the resulting product as a mix of policy recommendation, policy analysis, and policy refutation. I take a different approach. I believe that the policy process is best served when the three main aspects of business-relevant policy are broken down and viewed separately in their own right. These are: (a) the politics underlying the policy process; (b) the technology innovations which policy initiatives aim to support; and (c) the investment ultimately required to take any technology innovation to scale in the marketplace, thereby driving policy on a long-term and sustainable basis. Rather than jumble these perspectives, I treat them in Merritt t. Cooke 4 separate chapters and try to adopt the relevant “mind-set” of each in presenting material in the respective chapter. This may be nothing more than a reflection of my former training as a cultural anthropologist, but I believe it is useful—within the complex arena of China, the United States, and energy—in revealing underlying dynamics. For this reason, in the U.S. section of the opening chapter on Politics, I will rely heavily on the words of key political actors. Ours is a system where the president needs to persuade the electorate and what is said matters. In the section on Chinese Politics, the approach is different, relying instead on “structural analysis” of the ruling party and its interests. In each case, the attempt is to adopt a perspective particularly suited to its subject matter. Purpose The Woodrow Wilson Center’s motto is “knowledge in the public service.” Woodrow Wilson epitomized the ideal of the “practitioner scholar”—the part-time scholar who devotes some of his or her career to bringing scholarly research into the practical, socially-relevant domains of government or business or non-profit work. This is the spirit with which I have written this book. I am neither a career academic nor a professional policymaker. I have tried to make this book clear and concise, although it involves a complex, and fast-changing topic. Especially for technically inclined readers, I want to acknowledge that no sector domain in the U.S.-China clean energy field can be adequately reduced to a couple of pages. I believe this topic is an important one. If the United States and China find a way to realistically base and sustain their cooperation in clean energy, they will be addressing directly 40 percent of the world’s total carbon emissions. And if together they manage to create a replicable model of cooperation, they can indirectly help the world address the remaining 60 percent. At its core, this topic touches everyone—those who care deeply about America’s place in the world, those who are moved by China’s epochal reemergence, those who are environmentally-engaged, and those who are responsible global citizens. Students are a particularly important audience because the tectonic issue described in this book will ultimately be the felt experience of their generation. In short, I hope that this book may be found to present important issues in a balanced way and to offer something useful and readily comprehensible to anyone with enough interest to pick it up.

View the Wilson Center’s Book Launch Event here

Crackdown or Startup w border

 Henry “Hank” Paulson — former Chairman of Goldman Sachs, former Secretary of the U.S. Treasury and creator of the U.S.-China Strategic & Economic Dialogue — was in Philadelphia last Wednesday.  He came to publicize his new book Dealing With China: An Insider Unmasks the New Economic Superpower.

The media frame for the talk and Q&A which he gave to the World Affairs Council of Greater Philadelphia was:  ‘Hank, you’re a real patriot. Why are you helping China?”

In response, Hank Paulson was very clear that his interest in promoting a better understanding of China is rooted in his desire to do what is best for America.

You can read the full article here but, for the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on one small, but important, piece of the big contemporary China puzzle:  Is Xi’s ongoing crackdown (on corruption but also on foreign businesses, NGOs, press freedoms, social media, connectivity to the global knowledge-pool, etc) flashing green, yellow or red for China’s paramount challenge of rebooting its economy on a more sustainable basis?

China’s ‘old software version’ of infrastructure build-out, inbound investment and export of cheap stuff is clearly no longer operating smoothly on the new global hardware system.  China’s future – and Xi Jinping’s for that matter – depends on a smooth updating to a ‘new software version’ of consumer-led spending, outbound investment and innovation up the product value-chain.   Under any circumstances, that’s a tall-order to pull off in just a few years.  For those of us who believe that helping China matters to America’s future, the key question is whether the crackdown on political thought in China is – or is not — inimical to the desperately needed surge of commercial innovation needed to upgrade China’s economy to version 2.0.

It is perhaps not entirely a coincidence that, in the same week that Hank Paulson was wrestling with this question in Philadelphia, so were two other leading experts on the trajectory of China’s globalization elsewhere:  Shaun Rein and Tom Friedman in respective articles.  If Hank Paulson occupies the pivot point as a U.S. patriot committed to helping China, Shaun Rein is a self-acknowledged China booster and Tom Friedman a “color me dubious” observer of China’s steep road ahead to globalization.

Here’s what each of them has had to say over the past week on the ‘sword of Damocles’ question facing Xi and China:  crackdown or start-up?  (Click on the name below in order to source the original publication from which the following excerpts are taken):

Hank Paulson

Paulson

“Paulson believes the Communist Party has reached a simple accord with the Chinese people: prosperity in return for continued state control. The question, of course, is whether China can have it both ways – economic freedom without cultural freedom, a subject I raised with Paulson at the World Affairs Council.

‘In today’s information economy, I don’t know how economies can innovate and do the sorts of things they do to stay on top without having a free flow of ideas and information,” Paulson replied. “I’ve run a global company, and, boy, you need to be connected. You can’t have an Internet that’s not connected. You need to know what’s going on politically, regulatory systems, economically, in terms of ideas all over the world.’

He added: ‘But understand what’s going on right now. Xi Jinping . . . is focusing on the things that the people care about the most. So, corruption. He recognizes the party won’t survive unless he curbs corruption. So he’s focused on corruption, the environment, dirty air, and water.’

“So . . . managing China, just think what it’s like because they have to deal with the kinds of issues that afflict developed countries at the same time they have to deal with issues that developing countries are dealing with because a big part of the country is still poor. It would be like, . . . looking at Europe, Germany and Slovenia. They are both European, vastly different stages of development, they need different economic policies. So think about managing both of those in a single country under one party, and I mean that’s sort of the challenge.’”

 Shaun Rein

rein-circular

“China´s much needed anti-corruption drive has now put the country into a lock-down mode, and new projects have halted,” tells business analyst Shaun Rein at CNBC.  “The cut in the reserve ratio ratio (RRR) this weekend is one way for a kickstart, although nobody know what will really work.”

 China Herald:  “What does the Chinese market need to stimulate the economy and if this growth continues to disappoint then would you expect an additional benchmark rate cut in the next couple of quarters, something that many experts are now talking about?”

Rein:  “I think what we need to look at is not gross domestic product (GDP) growth but we need to take a look at unemployment and the second reason why I am more concerned about the economy is in the last month urban unemployment has been hovering around 5 percent – that’s really a problem. So the unemployment rate in areas of manufacturing are still fairly strong and you can easily stimulate that by forcing state owned enterprises to do heavy investment; train construction, airport construction and you can get jobs there but the issue is urban unemployment is weak and there aren’t a lot of easy remedies. The government is trying to switch from manufacturing oriented economy more towards one of technology and innovation as I outlined in my new book ‘The End of Copycat China’ but it is not easy to do that. You cannot get companies that are producing things all a sudden to become innovators, so there is definitely going to be some weakness, some problems in the economy over the next three-four months and frankly there are no easy answers on how they stimulate the economy.”

Tom Friedman

friedman-circular-thumbLarge-v3

“Americans … are asking of President Xi: “What’s up with you?” Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is clearly aimed at stifling the biggest threat to any one-party system: losing its legitimacy because of rampant corruption. But he also seems to be taking out potential political rivals as well. Xi has assumed more control over the military, economic and political levers of power in China than any leader since Mao. But to what end — to reform or to stay the same?

“Xi is “amassing power to maintain the Communist Party’s supremacy,” argued Willy Wo-Lap Lam, author of “Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping: Renaissance, Reform or Retrogression?” Xi “believes one reason behind the Soviet Union’s collapse is that the party lost control of the army and the economy.” But Xi seems to be more focused on how the Soviet Union collapsed than how America succeeded, and that is not good. His crackdown has not only been on corruption, which is freezing a lot of officials from making any big decisions, but on even the mildest forms of dissent. Foreign textbooks used by universities are being censored, and blogging and searching on China’s main Internet sites have never been more controlled. Don’t even think about using Google there or reading Western newspapers online.

“But, at the same time, Xi has begun a huge push for “innovation,” for transforming China’s economy from manufacturing and assembly to more knowledge-intensive work, so this one-child generation will be able to afford to take care of two retiring parents in a country with an inadequate social-safety net.

“Alas, crackdowns don’t tend to produce start-ups.

“As Antoine van Agtmael, the investor who coined the term “emerging markets,” said to me: China is making it harder to innovate in China precisely when rising labor costs in China and rising innovation in America are spurring more companies to build their next plant in the United States, not China. The combination of cheap energy in America and more flexible, open innovation — where universities and start-ups share brainpower with companies to spin off discoveries; where manufacturers use a new generation of robots and 3-D printers that allow more production to go local; and where new products integrate wirelessly connected sensors with new materials to become smarter, faster than ever — is making America, says van Agtmael, “the next great emerging market.”

“It’s a paradigm shift,” he added. “The last 25 years was all about who could make things cheapest, and the next 25 years will be about who can make things smartest.”

President Xi seems to be betting that China is big enough and smart enough to curb the Internet and political speech just enough to prevent dissent but not enough to choke off innovation. This is the biggest bet in the world today. And if he’s wrong (and color me dubious) we’re all going to feel it.”

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