US and China: Event highlights a strained relationship

Michael McShane
Staff Writer

The recent tariff disputes between the U.S. and China are part of a trend that risks leading the two countries into conflict.

On Saturday, Tom Hanson, the Diplomat-in-Residence at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, gave a presentation on the geopolitics of East Asia, the relationship between the United States and China, and the growing risk of confrontation between the two countries. The event was sponsored by the Mankato Area Lifelong Learners, a group dedicated to fostering education and continued intellectual development for adults later in life.

Mr. Hanson’s speech was remarkable in its breadth and scope, covering everything from medieval history to the political chaos of the last three years.

China has been rising slowly, but the rest of the world is beginning to pivot to it, especially as the United States, with its recent political turmoil, has begun to lose the confidence of other countries in the world, even our own allies. “We are seen around the world today as an increasingly polarized and uncertain country,” Mr. Hanson said. 

The country’s rapid advancement, particularly in technology and infrastructure, has outpaced the U.S. in recent years. “Xi Jinping, in 2014, announced the One Belt One Road Initiative, a new Silk Road,” Mr. Hanson said. “This is a massive infrastructure project, probably the largest in human history, that would link up Asia and Europe.” Over 70 countries, including many U.S. allies, are already involved in the initiative.

This discrepancy also extends to the private sector. Chinese tech companies have been investing in infrastructure and new technology, while their American counterparts have focused on stock buybacks and maximizing short-term profits. “There’s a sense that our heavily financialized system is not as adaptive, not as quick, as this highly centralized system,” Mr. Hanson said.

China has no shortage of problems, including pollution and massive amounts of debt. However, it has a fundamentally different political culture than the United States, and its leaders have a different way of looking at the world. “China is an ancient civilization,” Mr. Hanson said. “They see things cyclically, and they see themselves coming back up. They’ve been rising within the systems we’ve created.” 

“They are more responsive to the idea of social order, what they call social harmony, and that makes them to some extent less individualistic than we are,” he added. 

But just as American individualism can cause catastrophic problems when taken too far, the opposite approach can be dangerous as well. Recently, the Chinese government has pioneered a system of surveillance called the social credit system, which records every citizen’s activity and assigns them a social credit. This score can be used to reward behavior favored by the state and punish behavior that it does not favor. 

“I would say that it it possibly a logical consequence of the technologies that are developing right now,” Mr. Hanson said. “We thought initially that these would be liberating for people, but it’s proving possible to control these technologies.” 

In order to avoid conflict, Mr. Hanson said that the US has to fix some of the problems with its own political system first. “I think that the main thing we have to do is get our own house in order. The times in the past when we were most persuasive around the world was when we could point to a functioning system,” he said.

With respect to education, more universities need to emphasize area studies, which have languished since the Cold War, and abandon the focus on regime change, which has been a staple of American foreign policy for the last two decades. “We have to educate new generations to look at the world as it is, not how we want it to be,” Mr. Hanson said.

Header photo by Samuel Oluwadoromi | MSU Reporter.

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