“America is Back” declared US Secretary of State Blinken in Anchorage on 18 March 2021. In one sense, he was right. He – and National Security Adviser Sullivan – were back and face to face with State Councillor Yang and Foreign Minister Wang of China but everything else has changed. Blinken may have been drawing a line under the Trump administration but in every other respect Blinken was saying the same things – Xinjiang, Taiwan, the S China Sea, Human Rights and Hong Kong. A lecture of put-downs that was designed to put China on the back foot in the international court of political opinion but things have changed and the world has moved on and with words that resonated throughout the world, State Councillor Yang looked Blinken in the eye and said: “America is not qualified from the advantage of strength to speak to China”.
Today is not yesterday. The US is no longer an omnipotent world power. It is a declining power as China comes very close (by 2030) to becoming the world’s No 1 economic power. The US fiat no longer extends across the world. Its power has been clipped and a new state of affairs now exists. When the US inaugurated the post-WW II global order in 1945, the US accounted for 50% of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Today the US is 25% of global GDP. America may be back at the table eyeball to eyeball with the rising People’s Republic of China but it does not possess its former economic preponderance or its global position of strength.
In fifty years will the US economy have doubled? Will its average income rise to its former pre-eminent position? Will it invest in education, research and infrastructure to repair the years of slippage? Trump may, temporarily, have departed the stage but will he and his Capitol cohorts of 6 January 2021 return to remind the world of the significant failings of the US democratic model?
Looking back to Anchorage in 2071, many will view it as the moment in time when a big change took place. Not a change that makes China a new superpower or a change that anoints China as the new hegemon. China will not use its growing power and influence to impose Pax China. That will not happen. China has a very different approach but more of that in another article. No, Anchorage was the moment in time when the US was put in its place. No more tolerance of condescension or arrogance or great-power chauvinism. No more speaking down. No more lecturing to the 1.4bn people of China.
There is a further point. Blinken opened by saying he had just travelled from Tokyo and Seoul and tried to convey the impression that his words of admonition to China were given added strength and authority because they were endorsed by the governments of Japan and South Korea. Blinken, mistakenly, sought to present himself as a spokesman for the world in lecturing China. But Blinken knows, China knows and the world knows that the US speaks for itself and not the world. And this, in the week that Toyota Motor has invested in Chinese autonomous-driving startup – Momenta – as part of a $500m fundraising contribution. German auto parts maker Bosch and Singapore’s state-backed investor, Temasek Holdings, have also contributed. Blinken seeks to present himself as the world’s chief representative of a co-ordinated anti-China world approach to Beijing. But those days, too, are over. The US no longer carries such weight and influence. That, too, was the significance of Anchorage – a moment in time.
Looking forward, the world will be different. State Councillor Yang’s firm put down of Blinken’s words was a significant loss of face for Washington. If you want to discuss differences, Yang was saying, we will discuss differences. After all, that is how it should be. Big nations should be able to clarify areas of non-agreement while finding routes to constructive resolution in areas of common interest – climate change for example. But lecturing – No. Put-downs – No. Insults – No.
Yang could not have been clearer when he looked Blinken in the eye and said “I now say one thing. America is not qualified, from the advantage of strength to speak to China”. In other words – You are no longer No 1 or Top Dog. The pictures of 6 January 2021 flashed live around the world giving a visible history lesson to countries being persuaded to adopt US human rights and democratic procedures. The world has changed and the US has to adjust.
That is the lesson of Anchorage. “America – Wake Up. Treat us with respect or do not treat with us.” Soon the articles will appear in Foreign Affairs and other US think tank periodicals recognising that Anchorage was A Moment in Time when US power was eclipsed. Now the US needs to undergo a thorough re-think. How does it re-group and re-define its strategy going forward? It will not be easy. China is confident and ready to play a leading role. No longer on the back foot or apologetic or uncertain, China is beginning to be comfortable with the world’s new expectation of a resurgent China.
But China will do things differently. It will not be a superpower. Its fleet will not sail up and down the Western Pacific within sight of San Francisco or Los Angeles. Its soldiers will remain in China and not set up military bases in Asia, Africa and Latin-America. China will not export revolution or seek to undermine the governments of countries around the world. China will continue to be a reliable partner. It will be different from the US. And it will force historians to re-write the history books and, going forward, offer a new model of governance, development and sustained prosperity.
Empty rhetoric or words founded in achievement? Some countries and leaders will continue to misunderstand China and misrepresent its policies – that is inevitable but eventually, the scales will fall from their eyes and they will be able to see with 20/20 vision that China is not a threat but an alternative and as the world moves forward it is better to co-operate and collaborate than to confront and contest.