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China’s Rise & America’s Decline


The Queen's Club

20 May 2021

Thank you Liz. I always enjoy speaking to the QC. This is my third or fourth time. It’s not just me. At one Anzac event at the QC, my father and our military daughter Harriet both spoke! One of the reasons I like it is because, judging from
the correspondence and reactions I receive, women in general seem to be more open to challenging propositions.


Not all women of course. My mother’s friends do not like my recent book. For women of that era – schoolgirls in World War II – America saved us. And they think it will do so again. That is another story.


It is a natural human reaction to feel uncomfortable in the face of change to an established order. And many people do not like to hear criticism of the United States. They just do not want to know. But the Englishman George Orwell once
reminded us that seeing what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant struggle. And the American naturalist and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, who inspired me so much for my first little book on trees, lamented our blinding
preconceptions, and observed that ‘we hear and apprehend only what we already half know’.


China’s rise and America’s decline is a bit like that – full of hard-to-shake preconceptions. I will try – very gently - to shake a few tonight!


I told the Club that I planned to make this talk relatively light-hearted – and as short as I could reasonably make it. But please ask as many questions as you like, on any topic.


Here is a trick question. I bet you cannot guess who was the author of this statement in the New York Times in 2013:

It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as
exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and
small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic
traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their
policies differ too. We are all different, but when we ask for the
Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.


That may sound like the Archbishop of Canterbury, or perhaps Jimmy Carter, a follower of the Baptist Church. In fact the author was Vladimir Putin, a follower of the Russian Orthodox Church.


Here is another surprise. Who do you think said this:


I think it is a very dangerous term…You can feel you’re exceptional,
but when you start throwing it in other countries’ faces, I actually
think it is a very dangerous term to use…I can tell you that there are
many countries throughout the world that are extremely angry with
that term American Exceptionalism. Countries that are doing better
than we are – far better than we are. You’re looking to get along
with the world, and you say you are exceptional?

The author was a man called Donald Trump… And I can tell you from our recent experience living in Princeton, New Jersey in 2017, that he was certainly right about other countries ‘doing better’ – in areas such as infrastructure, healthcare, employment and general quality of life.


Then there is William Fulbright, after whom the Fulbright Fellowships are named. I have a fondness for him. He was an American who went to Oxford, which he credits with broadening his mind. He became a famous US senator.


President Truman, who had little formal education, did not like William Fulbright, which is probably a badge of honour. Truman characteristically called him ‘Senator Halfbright’. If you have read my book on Korea, you will know my feelings about President Truman.

Fulbright completely rejected the notion that the US should be responsible for spreading democracy and freedom in the world. He favoured a more modest approach that, in his words, ‘accepts the world as it is, with all its existing nations and ideologies, with all its existing qualities and shortcomings’.


It is a point that I have tried to make in my book and in subsequent writings in the SCMP and elsewhere.


Fulbright joked about the American missionary instinct for ‘freedom’ and illustrated his point with a story about three boy scouts:
- The boy scouts reported to their scoutmaster that their good deed for the day was helping an old lady to cross the street;
- When the scoutmaster commented ‘That is fine, but why did it take three of you?’;
- The boys replied ‘She did not want to go’!


It is an apt analogy because as Fulbright said ‘the good deed above all others that Americans feel qualified to perform is the teaching of democracy’.


The sad consequence of the American missionary approach has been 70 years of:
- interventions in foreign states;
- interference in foreign elections, long before Russia learned how to do it;
- wars, which since 2001, have come to be known as the ‘forever wars’;
- military invasions; and
- covert operations by the CIA, which, by the way, is not a mere intelligence service but is a lethal military force that is not subject to any of the rules or the scrutiny that apply to conventional military forces. We have nothing like it.


There is a catalogue of all of these matters in the book. Most of the interventions, invasions and covert operations were either unsuccessful, or unlawful under international law, or both. And almost all of them, I suggest, have been counterproductive
in the long term.


All of this wasted and expensive activity in pursuit of freedom and democracy has been, and still is:
- supported by a network of approximately 800 US military bases and installations in about 170 countries around the world – including of course in Australia;
- and funded by a defence and security budget that is beyond comprehension. Currently, it is greater than the defence budgets of next 9 or 10 countries in the world combined, including China.


Which brings me to the elephant in the room, which is China. It was ever thus. Could I read to you a few sentences from the preface of what I hope will be another book:


Economic historians attest that for most of history – 18 of the last 20 centuries - China’s economy was the world’s largest. The modern reality is that China is, or soon will be, the dominant global economic force again. The western world is living in a bubble. Twenty-five years ago, in his The Clash of Civilizations (1996), the American Samuel P. Huntingdon wrote that the ‘two-hundred year Western blip on the world economy will soon be over’. Some have described the Western blip as an ‘aberration’, and observed that we are returning to the historical pattern. It would seem that China’s past is China’s future…


Two millennia ago, at the time of Christ, the great powers in the world were Rome in the west and China, under the Han dynasty, in the east. It may not be a complete surprise to know that the Roman poet Juvenal once complained that Roman
women were interrupting the important affairs of men by asking the question ‘What are the intentions of the Chinese?’

Rome was fabulously, extravagantly, prosperous from Augustus until the end of the second century, but it started to decline from the third century. The good times lasted only for about two hundred years. There were multiple reasons for the decline, but here are a few:
- much like the modern United States, Rome had an extensive empire of foreign military bases, which drained the exchequer and became increasingly difficult to afford;
- Rome also had a huge trade imbalance with China. It imported more than it exported. And much of the imports were silks, which became a symbol of wealth, beauty and sexuality among Roman women;
- Roman bullion was a finite resource but Chinese silk was, and still is, an infinite and renewable resource. The result was inevitable. Rome became less and less prosperous and China continued on, as it always has.


Some of Rome’s old and wise men feared just such an outcome and worried about the huge outflow of capital on silks and other exotic products simply to please their women – so they could ‘shimmer in public’. They were right to be concerned. But could I share with you some of their other prejudices:


Pliny, who never married, thought that silk was the ‘latest extravagance devised by our women’ and that it reduced ‘women’s clothing to the appearance of near nakedness’. Dio, who buried himself away for 22 years composing 80 volumes of Roman history, described the fabric as ‘an invention of barbarian luxury…to please the picky taste of fine ladies’. Seneca, who married late in life to a younger woman, fulminated that silk was a cypher for eroticism and that it neither hid the curves nor the decency of the ladies of Rome. For him ‘A woman who wears these silks can hardly say with a clear conscience that she is not stark naked’.


We are approaching a hinge point in history. The question is what, if anything, to do about it. Could I venture a few personal opinions:
1. The Anglo/American vision of the world is very ‘old school’. It sees the world as it was – since 1800 when Britain, then America, were the richest states; and it wants to preserve it;
2. The talk of war against China is foolish. And that’s putting it mildly! The US has no clear chance of winning any war. The consequences for Australia and east Asia would be devastating and any military conflict would fail to achieve the objective of preserving US leadership in Asia. In fact, it would destroy US leadership;
3. In any event – and you do not really get this in the Australian or American media - there is no appetite in east Asia for a ‘ global coalition’ to contain China, especially under an American banner. That includes Japan by the way, which is ambivalent. The ASEAN nations and the countries of east Asia want accommodation, not confrontation. They have their differences but they prefer coexistence to conflict. China is their major trading partner and they know that the balance of power has shifted;
4. Singapore’s prime minister has shown leadership in pushing back against US enthusiasm for confrontation. So has New Zealand’s prime minister. Only one country in east Asia seems to be fuelling the fires of conflict. There are no prizes for guessing whom.


Could I add this note in conclusion? Diversity in ideology and difference in values are an inescapable part of the global order. But they have never been at the forefront of the US-led order. How often have we heard the refrain from Washington that ‘They don’t share our values’? Moral issues and human rights are also important. But there are 193 member states of the United Nations, and a small number of non-state territories outside the UN such as Palestine, the Vatican and…Taiwan. I am sure you know that most countries in the world have a ‘One China’ policy, including the US and Australia. Justice for the Uighurs and…possibly…self-determination for Taiwan, may be worthy causes worth speaking up about. But values differ. And the cause of the Uighurs, or Taiwan, let alone global peace and security, will not be advanced by interfering militarily in China’s affairs.

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