To contain or to collapse? Why China matters

An open letter to the London Review of Books.

In his piece on global politics, Thomas Meaney critiques Chicago realist John J. Mearsheimer for advocating a policy of containment toward China. Meaney contends that the likelihood of China threatening America militarily is low for the reason Mearsheimer once gave: America is bordered on east and west by the natural moats of the Atlantic and the Pacific.

Countries by military spending (China is on the right, second only to America — source: Visual Capitalist)

Leaving aside the fact that America intervened in World War II largely to counter Japan’s threat to its Pacific dominance, there is another risk: failure to contain China may lead to considerable economic, and perhaps military, instability. For as Charles Kindleberger argued in 1973, a major cause of the severity of the Great Depression, a catalyst of world war, was the lack of a dominant power to anchor world trade and direct crisis management.

If China rises to challenge America, world trade will similarly lose its anchor, and we may return from commerce to violent conflict, just as we did in 1914 when Germany rose to challenge the anchoring economic power of Great Britain, precipitating America’s reluctant intervention in 1917. If realism is right about power politics, America faces a stark choice: contain China by isolating it from the world economy, or risk the demise of the American anchor and the collapse of world trade, 1910s- or 1930s-style. In this respect, the otherwise erratic President Trump’s trade war was a good start, though it didn’t go remotely far enough, and President Biden hasn’t escalated it to the level needed to effectively contain China. The short-term economic price would be worth the long-term benefits of saving global capitalism.

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