Changes not seen in a Century

Changes not seen in a Century
Remarks to the Harvard College China Forum

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Visiting Scholar, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University
By video from Washington, DC  16 April 2022

Americans are now so worked up about Russian aggression that we are not thinking nearly as much as we should be about the epochal changes in the global situation that the war in Ukraine is catalyzing or how to cope with these.  President Putin’s decision to use force to defend Moscow’s perceived security interests and the reactions of the United States, Europe, Japan, and Australia to this clearly mark “changes not seen in a century” [百年未有之大变局][1]—to coin a phrase.  We are witnessing the end of the post-Cold War period and the passing of the post-World War II and Bretton Woods eras as well as other historic shifts in the world order.

Russia’s three-century-long effort to attach itself to the West has definitively failed.  Sanctions are decoupling it from Europe and North America and leaving it with no alternative to dependence on China and India.  Europe is no longer at peace.  Germany and Japan are rearming.  Finland and Sweden are applying for membership in NATO as Turkey sets it aside.  With “Brexit,” Britain has forfeited influence in Europe and thereby diminished itself globally.  The Middle East has ceased to be an American sphere of influence.

International law has lost almost all credibility.  The future of the dollar-based international monetary system is in increasing doubt.  The “exorbitant privileges” the United States has enjoyed for three-fourths of a century are at risk.  As Africa, the Arab world, Latin America, and West and Southeast Asia join China and India in refusing to take sides in the US-Russia proxy war in Ukraine, they show that the world is much more divided between former imperialist powers and those they humiliated than between democracies and autocracies.  There are ever fewer institutions that are sufficiently representative of shifting global subdivisions and power balances to bridge this divide.

The nightmare in Ukraine follows the replacement by the U.S. and China of efforts to seek mutual benefit with “great power rivalry” that seeks one-sided advantages.  Sino-American relations are at a post-normalization nadir.  The changes this and the widening Russo-American proxy war have catalyzed are accelerating the partition of the world into rival economic, technological, and military blocs – one led by the United States, another centered on China, and perhaps still others.  Planetwide problems like climate change, environmental degradation, and nuclear proliferation as well as challenges like reinventing rules for trade and investment that enable greater global prosperity are being neglected.  Whatever happened to 求同存异[2] – the founding principle of Sino-American relations?

Eventually, China and the United States will rediscover the merits of rapprochement.  But, at seventy-nine, I do not expect to live to see this.  This Sino-American split, like the Sino-Soviet split, is folly, but it will take time for statesmen to come to their senses and try to repair it.

What does this mean for relations between China and the United States or between Chinese and Americans?

China’s economic prosperity and America’s scientific and technological advance have both benefited enormously from collaboration between the two countries over the past four decades.  The impediments that both are erecting to such intercourse cannot now help but take their toll.  China is aligned with Russia and the countries of the global South but no longer with the United States.  America will miss reliable Chinese contributions to its science, technology, and capital as much as China misses the opportunity to advance through cooperation with the United States.

Many of you in this audience are following in the footsteps of previous generations of Chinese who sought knowledge in the West.  After a long hiatus, those who studied here in the 1920s and ‘30s were able to lead the renewal of Sino-American scholarly communication in the 1980s.  Sadly, your generation of Chinese students may find yourselves similarly isolated from this country for a time.  You have come to know its merits and failings firsthand as Chinese students a century ago also did.  Whether you remain here, return to China, or go elsewhere, when things calm down – as they eventually will, you will be the foundation on which mutually beneficial ties between China and the United States are renewed.

The fact is that neither China nor America can become what either has the capacity to be without peaceful engagement with the other.  We will pay a price for disengagement, but it will not last forever.  We may differ on many things but in time we will reembrace the imperative of cooperation to advance those interests we share.  There are many such interests for us to rediscover.

[1] Changes not seen in a century.

[2] Temporarily setting differences aside to search for points in common.