My colleague Martin Wolf recently wrote about the looming 100-year conflict between the US and China. His argument is more nuanced than the headline. Having spent part of this week among leading policymakers and thinkers at the annual Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, I am inclined to think Martin was not exaggerating. The speed with which US political leaders of all stripes have united behind the idea of a “new cold war” is something that takes my breath away. Eighteen months ago the phrase was dismissed as fringe scaremongering. Today it is consensus. Even if Donald Trump were not US president, and someone less nationalistic than Xi Jinping were running China, it is very hard to see what, or who, is going to prevent this great power rivalry from dominating the 21st century. The view from Aspen is that: a) Trump is right to identify China as America’s overwhelming challenge; but that b) that his actions are making the problem dramatically worse. In other words, Trump is weakening America’s chances of predominating in that all-enveloping contest.

Here is what worries me on both scores. Five years ago everybody in Washington still signed up to the view that globalisation was good and that it was a positive sum game. If China got richer, so did the US. One country’s success was not another’s failure. That had, indeed, been the prevailing wisdom since the end of the original cold war in 1990. The Washington consensus turned out to be wrong, or at least to be far too simplistic. Positive-sum economics does not exist in some separate universe to zero-sum geopolitics. China’s economic advancement poses a genuine threat to America’s global hegemony. Most of us can accept that. What worries me is that the US is now overcorrecting. It sees everything as a contest with winners and losers. Nowhere is this truer than in technology. Those who studied economics believe in Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage: it always makes sense to open your economy even if your trading partners are protectionist. But what if most trade is increasingly in information and data that, in turn, feed into national defence systems? Isn’t China exploiting our openness in order to beat us?

The problem with that question is that it is self-answering. If indeed China is seeking to exploit, steal or copy western technology in order to dominate the west militarily, then the obvious answer is to bring down the shutters. Instead of openness we should embrace “decoupling” and “bifurcation”. That is the train that we are on. But if you pose the question China is asking — is the west seeking to keep China down? — you get a troubling answer, which is yes. That is exactly how this looks from Beijing. The result is two giants blindly stumbling towards a century of conflict, as Martin put it.

China US heavyweights

Perhaps we should consider another explanation. That by assuming each other’s worst motives, Beijing and Washington are pretty much guaranteeing each other’s worst behaviour. That, as sharp Swampians will know, is the prisoner’s dilemma in a nutshell. I don’t know what the solution to this is. To be sure, Trump has already made the problem far worse. By pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he is increasing Beijing’s ability to pick off America’s allies and destroy any prospect of a global consensus to deal with China’s rise. America’s biggest leverage lies in alliances. But to be fair to Trump, that is what Hillary Clinton promised she would do as well.

Meanwhile, all this is curdling the atmosphere at the “people-to-people” level. Chinese students find it far harder to get visas to the US. Chinese scientists are treated with suspicion at US research institutions. American business executives have to think twice before visiting China, especially given what Beijing is prepared to do to Canadian citizens residing there in classic cold war tit-for-tat style. The essence of scientific advancement lies in collaboration. If the west and China are to divorce, we will all feel like abandoned children.

Rana, I know you think a lot about these subjects. Tell me how, exactly, a Democratic president — say Elizabeth Warren — would be able to rekindle a positive-sum world? I confess that I am sceptical whether she would even want to. I don’t think Joe Biden has thought deeply about the subject, or is concealing it if he has.

Recommended reading

  • My column this week is on Trump’s 2020 re-election strategy, which looks dangerously polarising. The piece went up before he held a rally in which people chanted “send her back” about Ilhan Omar, the Muslim-American congresswoman, who was born in a Somali refugee camp. Such is the incendiary nature of this topic — and Trump’s reckless invective (in my view) — that the FT moderators were forced to close comments on the piece. I fear deeply for America if this is how Trump plans to win a second term.
  • My colleague Andy Bounds wrote an absorbing piece about what Britain’s “left-behind” areas want out of Brexit. What stands out most in this textured and nuanced survey is how little immigration and race play on people’s minds. It reinforces my view that the key challenge of our time is collapsing economic hope among western middle classes, rather than an endogenous surge in xenophobia. The latter is strong (see my Trump column). But it has always been there. What is new is that our economically-wealthy leaders are prepared to whip it up for their own ends.

Rana Foroohar responds

Ed, thanks for writing this much-needed note. I think about nothing so much as the questions you’ve posed here. I’ve written quite a lot about the need for elites in the US to craft policy that doesn’t overlook Americans hit hardest by the decisions taken by both US parties, from the 1980s onwards, to allow economic globalisation to run so far ahead of political globalisation. This isn’t because I’m a secret Trump supporter or because I think that the Chinese working class is any less deserving of upward mobility than blue-collar Americans. As our colleague Martin Wolf wrote so elegantly this week, what’s human is human. It’s because having grown up with people living on the short end of that bargain I was worried that we’d end up with someone just like Trump.

Your question about Liz Warren is what everything hinges on. I know her to be someone who cares deeply about the people that the more corporatist wing of the Democratic party hasn’t served well in the past two decades. I also know her to be someone who can sit down and talk about policy with New York’s top financiers (and that’s something she doesn’t get enough credit for). Finally, she’s really not a career politician. It’s just not her DNA. She’s a public servant at heart, and an intellectual. I think she’s the best hope for Democrats and frankly the country today.

The question is: can she win? I won’t pretend to know the answer to that yet. But I plan to write a column on the topic soon.

Your feedback

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