By Invitation

China, US: Same planet but different worlds

For these two big powers to co-exist peacefully, efforts must be made to help China heal from past wounds

It is banal by now to say that China and the Umited States form the world's most critical bilateral relationship. Thus, last week's summit at Mar-a-Lago, Florida, was watched throughout the world with baited breath.

In one important respect, the US-China relationship illustrates a historical pattern of rivalry between the dominant power and the rising power, which has generally resulted in war. Harvard historian Graham Allison has traced the pattern back to the Peloponnesian War (431 to 404 BC) between Sparta and Athens, respectively the dominant and rising powers then, chronicled by Greek historian Thucydides. The title of Professor Allison's latest book poses the century's most critical question: Can America And China Escape Thucydides's Trap?

In more recent history, there have been the wars between Spain and Portugal, between the Netherlands and Spain, between Great Britain and the Netherlands, between Great Britain and France, then between France and Great Britain versus Germany, the triumphalist rise of the US after World War I, its victory over Japan in World War II, and, one can add, its victory against the Soviet Union in the Cold War.

Whether China and the US will repeat the pattern or break the pattern remains to be anxiously seen. What can be said at the outset is that never in history, as illustrated by the examples above, have two rival powers been more different in the most fundamental ways. This goes much deeper than some of the examples more usually cited.


One (the US) is a democracy, the other (China) a dictatorship.


One is extremely wealthy (US$57,000 or S$80,000 gross domestic product per capita), the other was extremely poor, less so now, but still very far behind (US$7,000).

On the military front, China may be "rising", but at a military expenditure for 2016 of US$215 billion, it is still a dwarf compared to the US$596 billion of the US. Besides, while the US has an intricate network of military alliances throughout the world, China has one: North Korea. As they say: "With friends like that…"

As the US (often joined by Europe and amazingly so by Japan) today wags its fingers and tells China to "abide by the rules", what rules did the West and Japan abide by as they raped China? No country has such deep scars. In spite of that, quite remarkably China has come a very long way in the last 30 years economically, socially and even politically.

Moreover, even if declining, the US stands out for its tremendous soft power, while China's, even if possibly growing, remains modest.

The respective Chinese and American presidents' daughters, Xi Mingze and Ivanka Trump, both attended American universities. Mingze went to Harvard; Ivanka first to Georgetown, then to Wharton. In fact, at some 330,000, Chinese students account for more than 30 per cent of international students enrolled in American colleges and universities. The number of American students in Chinese universities is estimated at 20,000.

Compare that to Germany and the United Kingdom - let alone Sparta and Athens - the differences are gigantic. While in the modern age there has been one rising non-Western power, Japan, its rise was accomplished by allying with Western powers - with the UK from 1902 to 1922, with Nazi Germany from 1938 to 1945, and with the US since 1952. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was fashionable to refer to Japan as the "Britain of Asia" and Osaka as the "Manchester of Japan"; when the two formed their alliance in 1902 it was hailed as that of the Empire of the Rising Sun with the Empire over which the sun never sets! They eventually went to war in 1941.

Two even far more fundamental differences need to be recognised which suggest that while on the same planet, they are two totally different worlds with very different world views.

The US is one of the world's youngest countries. China is one of the world's oldest civilisations. China's origins go back at least 5,000 years. The Chinese who live in China today are for the most part descendants of those who populated the country thousands of years ago.

Though President Donald Trump may rail against immigrants, the US is almost entirely composed of immigrants, at most going back a few centuries. The "native" American population was virtually obliterated: the estimated total number of Native Americans today is in the region of 20 million, with five million still living in tribal reservations, out of a total population of some 320 million. Americans who are not descended from those who emigrated voluntarily to the US, due to religious persecution in their home countries or in search of new opportunities, include the predominant number of the black population who are descendants of slaves. US immigration policies varied over time and have generally been selective.

There could have been more American descendants of Chinese immigrants - estimated Chinese American population is less than four million - except that in 1882 the US Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act; it was partially repealed in 1943 (when China and the US were allies against Japan in World War II), but not completely abrogated until 1965.


The second fundamental difference refers to more recent history. The last two centuries, 19th and 20th, especially following the Civil War (1861-1865), have seen the triumphalist ascent of the US as an economic, military and imperial power. In 1830, the US' share of world GDP was 1 per cent; by 1950, it had risen to 25 per cent. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, with the sole exception of Vietnam in 1975, the US won all its wars. And while it lost in Vietnam, this did not result in Vietnamese armed forces marching into Washington - or any part of the US.

In the decades following its victory in World War II, the US regularly intervened in the politics of foreign nations as a means of maintaining its global hegemonic position. A flagrant example was the CIA-sponsored coup overthrowing Iran's democratically elected prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh, and in his place imposing the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a stooge of the US; with technology transferred from Israel, Washington helped Teheran develop nuclear weapon capability.

With the exception of the Soviet space, the world was the US' oyster. Then the Soviet space collapsed in 1991.

By way of the starkest of possible contrasts, whereas China accounted for 33 per cent of global GDP in 1820, by 1950 it was less than 4 per cent. Whereas the 19th and 20th centuries were the US' era of triumph, for China they were the era of humiliation. Beginning with the First Opium War in 1839 until its final defeat of Japan in 1945, China lost all its wars.

As the US flourished, China was economically impoverished, militarily defeated and occupied, culturally plundered - notably the 1860 pillage of the Old Summer Palace by French and British troops - and psychologically humiliated.

As the US (often joined by Europe and amazingly so by Japan) today wags its fingers and tells China to "abide by the rules", what rules did the West and Japan abide by as they raped China? No country has such deep scars. In spite of that, quite remarkably China has come a very long way in the last 30 years economically, socially and even politically.

The greatest challenge of the 21st century is to ensure this trend continues in China. Efforts need to be made to heal the wounds and engage China in the global community so that the two worlds can peacefully coexist on the same planet.

•The writer is emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD business school, with campuses in Lausanne and Singapore, and visiting professor at Hong Kong University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 11, 2017, with the headline 'China, US: Same planet but different worlds'. Print Edition | Subscribe