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Global Power: Ascendancy in China and Retrenchment in the U.S.

October 27, 2020

Thunderbird professors Anne-Marie Slaughter, Doug Guthrie, Landry Signé and Rebeca Hwang recently joined Thunderbird Director-General and Dean Sanjeev Khagram in a virtual discussion of China’s ascent to global power and the United States’ retrenchment.

China is Building Allies and Markets – And Growing Soft Power

“China isn’t just growing aggressively; they’re building allies and markets.” ~ Thunderbird professor Doug Guthrie Click to Tweet 

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – a global infrastructure development strategy for investment in nearly 70 countries and international organizations – is to China what the Marshall Plan was to the U.S. after World War II. It’s China’s playbook for building connections and breaking down borders. 

According to Doug Guthrie, Professor and Executive Director of Thunderbird Global, “A lot of people who have observed BRI think it’s China aggressively building in places like Southeast Asia and Africa. What China is really doing is building allies and markets.”

Africa is a good example. Chinese exports to Africa grew from almost zero to over $10 billion in just three decades. China is seen as a very strong partner there. “There is a forum on China-Africa cooperation, and we have investment commitments of over $60 billion,” said Landry Signé, Professor and Founding Co-Director of Thunderbird’s Fourth Industrial Revolution Initiative and Globalization 4.0 Initiative.

“When you ask an African which country they believe has the right development model, they will say first the U.S. and then China,” Signé explained. But at the end of the day, as long as the partner is providing needed resources, it doesn’t matter whether the partner is China or the U.S. Indeed, “Many Africans are learning Chinese and even moving to China instead of the U.S. to study,” said Signé. 

The changing sentiment in Africa towards China versus the U.S. is driven in large part by China’s aggressive engagement on the continent. It’s also driven by what many perceive as a U.S. retrenchment away from international engagement, and a decline in America’s soft power.

“When you ask an African which country they believe has the right development model, they will say first the U.S. and then China.” ~ Thunderbird professor Landry Signé Click to Tweet 

The U.S. is Retrenching – And Losing Soft Power

“The world is looking at spectacular dysfunction in the U.S. right now.” ~ Thunderbird professor Anne-Marie Slaughter Click to Tweet 

“The U.S. has to want to be a global leader,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter, Distinguished Professor of Practice. “But that is not what the current administration wants in the sense of reaching out to other countries, building alliances and building relationships. The United States is America first, which often means America alone, and it definitely means bare knuckles, zero-sum politics with other great powers.” 

With the current administration in the U.S., “If somebody wins, somebody loses. Cooperation and collaboration is at best temporary to help you defeat some enemy,” Slaughter explained. “What we should be doing is marshaling the resources and the allies of other countries around the world and of our own corporations, civic groups, universities and the wealth of open society to focus on global problems.” 

“The rest of the world is looking at spectacular dysfunction in the U.S. right now,” Slaughter said. “They see Trump. They see COVID out of control – particularly in comparison to our peer countries. They also see racism, division, inequality and leaders calling each other the worst kinds of names on all platforms.” The U.S. still has much to admire, Slaughter said, but “we are not putting our best face forward to the world.” 

“The U.S. should be collaborating with other governments, international organizations, allies, scientists, CEOs and philanthropists to solve the issues of the pandemic.” ~ Thunderbird professor Anne-Marie Slaughter Click to Tweet 

“In the middle of a global pandemic, the U.S. pulled out of the World Health Organization – an entire, multilateral system,” Slaughter said. “The United States should be working with other governments, working with international organizations, working with allies, working with scientists and CEOs and philanthropists to find a solution for this issue that imperils all of us.”

In addition to (perhaps in part because of) an ‘America first, America alone’ retrenchment from global engagement, America’s soft power is declining. For decades, people around the world have wanted American music, American technology, American food, American money, American clothing, American education. But according to Slaughter, the world may be losing that loving feeling. 

Furthermore, as the world becomes more global, new generations are consuming many other cultures. “The culture that global Generation Z is consuming no longer comes from California,” said Rebeca Hwang, Professor of Practice. “You have K-pop stars that are more famous around the world than some of the most well-known celebrities in Hollywood. A relatively small country like Korea with 50 million people is not only exporting Baby Shark but also is home to some of the biggest names in entertainment and gaming.” 

Technology is King

Chinese high-tech companies began to rise in the 2000s. Today these companies are major global players. But many retain deep ties to the Chinese government. “Companies like Tencent and Alibaba have really helped the Chinese government embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” Guthrie said. “Things like AI, 5G and other high-tech developments are contributing to China’s ascendancy, but also to a greater division in the world.” 

One example of China’s ascendancy in tech: In 2019, the United States had about $49 billion in mobile payments. China had $13 trillion. “That number seems startling because that's the size of the Chinese economy,” Guthrie said. “That's the point.”  

Entrepreneurship and innovation is changing on a global scale. Silicon Valley has long been the world’s high-tech hub, but in the last five years “there has been an increasing level of exodus of the most talented people out of Silicon Valley,” said Hwang. “First to Los Angeles, Denver, Austin, but then increasingly outside of the U.S.” 

COVID-19 is exacerbating the exodus. Even with proper visas, it’s very difficult for international talent to enter the U.S. “So, they're starting their hubs in their home countries and hometowns,” said Hwang. “People now realize you don't have to be in Silicon Valley to work and create great technology. You can work out of Africa or Southeast Asia and still create great quality work. I think the future is going to look a lot more global when it comes to entrepreneurship.”

“There has been an increasing level of exodus of the most talented people out of Silicon Valley to other places around the globe and COVID has only exacerbated that.” ~ Thunderbird professor Rebeca Hwang Click to Tweet 

China’s ascendancy as a global superpower will continue, the panelists agreed. At what rate and to what extent, no one quite knows. And whether the United States’ retrenchment will continue remains to be seen. But one thing Thunderbird’s China-watchers agree on is that Global power is not a zero-sum game and competition can be a positive for both the U.S. and China. Only time will tell whether China can become more influential and wealthy without diminishing the power of the U.S., but Thunderbird’s experts remain hopeful that strength in the West and the East can benefit everyone.

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