Why the American empire should stop worrying about the return of ‘imperial’ China

  • Winston Mok says the US is getting agitated about China’s economic and military rise, and forgetting its own empire of military bases. Moreover, the US’ relative economic decline, starting in the late 1970s, has had little to do with China
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2018, 3:02am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2018, 6:31am

American alarm over a rising Chinese empire is not entirely misplaced, but it should be tempered by self-awareness: America itself is an empire, whose dominance is perhaps unparalleled in human history. American exceptionalism permits limitless expansion in the name of freedom, as seen in the United States’ “liberation” of Iraq. Yet, from the Philippines to Haiti, the US’ historical actions often fell short of the ideal of promoting democracy.

The age of empires has never quite left us. The Austro-Hungarian empire and the Ottoman empire disintegrated near the end of the first world war. After the British and French empires ended around the second world war, there rose from the ashes a superpower that would surpass them all in military and economic might.

The cold war was really a clash of two empires: the US and the Soviet Union, which was the Russian empire in communist guise. After the cold war, the US, as the sole hegemon, continued to extend indirect control around the world. The world’s only superpower has parallels with the British empire, the Roman empire and even the Tang empire of China.

The US has got all agitated about China’s military base in Djibouti, although it also maintains a base there, as well as nearly 800 others in more than 70 countries. To some extent, the world’s third- and fourth-largest economies, Japan and Germany, are protectorates of the US, a state of affairs that scholar Chalmers Johnson described as the US’ “international protection racket”.

The US sees Latin America as its backyard, and China’s economic overtures to those countries as “imperial”, though it has carved out spheres of influence in the Middle East and northeast Asia – China’s neighbourhood. The US also resists China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a threat to the unipolar world order.

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Yet, American companies like Apple and Microsoft dominate the world in a way that the British East India Company didn’t. After the second world war, free trade was promoted to give American manufacturers unfettered access to world markets. But, in changed circumstances, the rules are being changed unilaterally: what could be more imperial than imposing tariffs on allies and rivals alike with impunity?

The American empire is less overt than the preceding British one, but not necessarily less aggressive. Instead of direct colonisation, the Americans rule through military, technological, cultural and economic domination. The way the US bullied Canada and Mexico into signing a trade agreement is just the latest manifestation of this.

Empires are not all bad. From the 1850s onwards, the British empire became increasingly liberal. It built institutions. Some countries might have fared better if they had gained their independence later, as seen in the experiences of states in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. It is perhaps no accident that Singapore and Hong Kong, among Asia’s most prosperous cities, are former British colonies. Hong Kong has played a unique role in transferring key institutions, such as legal and financial systems, from the last empire to the next potential one. The current superpower seems to find it more difficult to build than to destroy (see the Middle East). In contrast, the preceding empire was arguably more constructive.

In 1961, the year I was born, the US was contributing a peak 40 per cent to the world economy. By the time I started my freshman year at MIT in 1979 – when China’s economic reforms had barely begun – US GDP had fallen to 27 per cent of world GDP. Following ups and downs in the intervening years, the US’ share of the world economy was still 27 per cent as recently as 2006, five years after China entered the WTO.

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From 2006 to 2017, the gap between the US and Chinese economies narrowed significantly, but US GDP only slipped to 24 per cent. The US’ relative decline, long before the rise of China, started as other economies, especially Japan and Europe, grew. And these are the economies, not so much the US, which have since been outpaced by China.

The US and Chinese economies, tightly coupled, have actually grown hand in hand. To maintain its dominance, the American empire has exploited China’s production advantages, and unwittingly facilitated Chinese development to a scale that caused American misgivings. In my lifetime, the story has gone from “the US and China versus the others” to “the US versus China”.

Any emerging Chinese empire will be – and must be – very different from the Qing empire. None of China’s neighbours can accept being treated like a tributary state. The return of a Sino-centric Asia, but for the complications of US-China rivalry, should be much more peaceful than the American reign. A rising China will be shaped by its own tradition but also, inevitably, be inspired by the US – but it will be less interventionist, less militarised and more geographically confined. If the US does not find itself threatening in the mirror, there is no reason why it should be too alarmed by a rising China.

Winston Mok, a private investor, was previously a private equity investor