First of a Series…
Like all nations, the United States is perpetually in competition with other countries. In its 230 years of existence since the Constitution was signed at the Philadelphia convention on September 17, 1787, the U.S. has had to confront just about every other major power on earth, including England, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Russia. In other words, every few decades, our country has faced a substantial, even mortal, threat to its existence.
And China is no exception. For instance, in the Korean War from 1950 to 1953, American forces fought the People’s Republic of China more than they did North Korea; indeed, the soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army outnumbered their North Korean allies by a factor of roughly 5 to 1. In that conflict, American KIAs totaled 33,686.
More than six decades later, in 2017, we can all judge for ourselves whether China is a friend, a rival—or a foe lying in wait.
Of course, in the modern era, military competition is inextricable from economic competition. While generalship and soldiering are perpetually important in war, a nation’s scientific and industrial capacities have proven to be even more important, as this author has argued in the past—for example, here and here.
We might also note that this industrial reality was amply demonstrated in another crucial struggle for the survival of the United States: the Civil War.
Movie fans might recall the illustrative words of Clark Gable in 1939’s Gone With The Wind; the character Rhett Butler warns his fellow plantation-minded Southerners against challenging the factory-minded Yankees: “All we have is cotton, and slaves, and arrogance.” In fact, the Confederacy had much more than that; it had better officers and, quite possibly, better soldiers overall. Yet as the ultimate outcome of the fighting demonstrated, virtuosity in the military arts, by itself, was not sufficient to stave off defeat.
Indeed, the four years of Blue-Gray fighting might be summed up this way: The South would win and retreat, and the North would lose and advance. Better logistics, greater materiel, and a stronger “military industrial complex”—as seen, for instance, in the rapid evolution of the Parrott Gun, manufactured in upstate New York—powered General Grant’s armies to victory.
Thus we are reminded that military strength must have an industrial and technological substrate.
So if strategic competition among nations is inevitable, then the true national patriot must make sure that his or her country has the edge in inventors and technologists, as well as soldiers.
And speaking of gun manufacturing, it’s interesting to note that China was the first country to develop not only gunpowder, in the 11th century, but also artillery, soon thereafter. Indeed, the Chinese also had the idea of the explosive artillery shell, even as Europeans, lagging far behind on the other side of the world, were still hacking each other with swords and volleying arrows.
Yet then the Chinese let their martial innovation slip through their fingers by failing to build out their know-how. The hangup was not that China was peaceable; the Chinese fought plenty of wars back then. Instead, China simply failed to recognize, and routinize, its battlefield inventions.
Thus we come to a key lesson about military technology: In order for it to be effective, it must be mass-produced and, also, mass-understood. As an aside, we can observe that the military mind, worldwide, has many strengths, but it is mostly conservative in that it is not always eager to embrace innovation.
And now we can cite another example of Chinese genius, coupled, again, with a collective failure to utilize that genius: In the 15th century, China was building large ships—some more than 400 feet long, with four decks and nine masts—for oceangoing voyages. Indeed, in those years, the Chinese mariner Zheng He was leading expeditions reaching as far as East Africa and Arabia.
Yet then the same thing happened to Chinese seafaring as had happened to Chinese warfighting: As a civilization, China simply lost interest in its own developments. Specifically, the Chinese emperors believed that the Middle Kingdom was already perfect; the country had everything it needed, and new things would simply confuse matters. In addition, since China lacked a robust capitalist mercantile tradition, it lacked also—as opposed to Europe—a powerful class of merchants hungering for more trading opportunities.
Thus it’s one of the great “what ifs” of history: What would have happened if China hadn’t slacked off, but instead had kept going? What if it had sought to continue its expansion and colonize—okay, conquer—Africa, the Middle East, and even, way across the Pacific, North America? Yes, it would have been a massive effort, but as we know, the Europeans did it successfully in later centuries.
Indeed, when the Europeans finally caught up with Chinese military and nautical advances, they caught up with a vengeance. As we all know, it was an Italian, Christopher Columbus, sailing under the Spanish flag, who landed in the Americas in 1492, thus turning an entire hemisphere into a lucrative extension of Europe.
Moreover, by the 16th century, Portugal had built a trading settlement, Macau, on Chinese soil. And so it was Portugal settling in China, not China settling in Portugal.
Thus began a four-century stretch in which Europeans and, later, the Japanese, came to dominate China. It might seem incredible that a civilization as accomplished as China’s could fall into such lethargic incompetence, but then historical events don’t have to seem credible—they are simply true.
The contraction of China during the middle centuries of the second millennium puts ample historical weight behind the familiar adage: Go big or go home. If the Chinese weren’t building on their inventions, it was inevitable that someone else would—namely, the Europeans.
Indeed, the Europeans—including their rambunctious offshoot, the Americans—proved the truth of another tough lesson of history: To the victor goes the spoils.
It was only in the 20th century that China began to wake up. The Chinese Revolution of 1911, led by Sun Yat-sen, finally overthrew the decadent and nitwitted imperial dynasty. The new Republic of China had the right ideas about economic development—that is, capitalism guided by nationalism—but those plans were derailed by Mao Zedong’s communist insurgency and then, further, by the Japanese invasion of 1937. During all the fighting, which lasted until 1949, millions of Chinese soldiers were killed, as well as tens of millions of civilians, leaving the country in ruins. And when Mao’s communists took over, it’s hard to say that conditions for the people got better. However, with Soviet help, China began regaining its military power; it exploded its own atomic bomb in 1964.
Still, China didn’t really regain its civilizational mojo until the rule of one of Mao’s successors, Deng Xiaoping, who led the country from 1978 to 1992.
Deng was officially a communist, but, most of all, he was a pragmatist. And so he junked Maoist dogma and opened his country to mostly market-driven economic development. As Deng liked to say, “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white; if it catches mice, it is a good cat.”
In effect, Deng revived the economic model of Sun Yat-sen, from earlier in the 20th century, of capitalism, steered by conscious nationalism. Yes, it’s interesting to note: the Chinese communists today are overseeing a system that’s pretty much what the Chinese nationalists of a century ago had in mind. To put it another way, from an economic-policy perspective, it’s as if the island nation Taiwan—technically, the Republic of China, tracing its roots to Sun Yat-sen’s regime—is, in fact, running the Beijing government. The commonality between the two regimes, of course, is that they are both Chinese; in general, the Chinese know how to get things done.
Indeed, the results of economic reform in the People’s Republic of China have been spectacular, just as they had been, earlier, on Taiwan, aka the Republic of China. In 1978, Mainland China’s gross domestic product, adjusted for purchasing power, was a mere 10 percent the size of the U.S. And yet by 2016, China’s economy was 115 percent the size of America’s.
To put those numbers another way, in less than 40 years, China has gone from having an economy one-tenth the size of the U.S. to having an economy that’s one-seventh larger. (Of course, the U.S. still has a sizable advantage in GDP per capita.)
Many observers—including the Trump administration’s trade czar, Peter Navarro—would say that much of China’s gain has been substantially the result of foolish American policies toward Chinese imports, although, of course, free traders disagree. Yet either way, the bottom line is the same: China is back.
Indeed, today, China, having slumbered for five centuries, is now wide awake.
In the grand scheme of things, China’s surge is no great shock: The rest of the world should remember that for most of recorded human history, China has been at or near the top.
Moreover, for the past 5,000 years, China—in its ups and in its downs—has been an identifiable country, and that’s a longer span of continuous history than any other country in the world today can claim. Thus we can conclude: As a people, the Chinese obviously know something about building, and maintaining, a strong civilization. And one of the keys to civilization-maintenance, as we have seen, is strategic power, both military and industrial.
So now, here’s a pointed question for Americans: Who’s lethargic, and incompetent, today? If not its people as a whole, then at least its ruling elite? Who’s fiddling while the country burns—or falls apart?
As we have seen, the verdict of history is that sluggishness and ineptitude is catastrophic; the world is always in motion, and so the only hope for a people is to stay atop of the change, lest they be swept under.
Way back in the 15th century, the Chinese made mistakes and paid a heavy national price. Since then, they have learned their lesson. Now, in the 21st century, they are firmly resolved to do even better—much better—and the results speak for themselves.
We Americans are on notice.
Next: Two events in 1969 that changed everything—or should have.