How China and the United States wrecked the 21st century

Andrei Lungu | 18 January 2019

“For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: It might have been.”

 John Greenleaf Whittier

On the first day of January 2039, in Washington, the presidents of China and the United States stood on the South Lawn, for a ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the US and the People’s Republic of China, an event that forever changed the world.

Ever since the 2008 financial crisis, when observers were referring to China and the US as the world’s G2, the rising and the established power have been working hand in hand to solve the world’s greatest challenges. Over the three decades since, most technological breakthroughs and global achievements have been, at least partially, the result of Sino-American cooperation.

It was a team of researchers from American and Chinese universities who announced a cure for Alzheimer’s in 2025. Two years earlier, DNATech, a company founded by six American and Chinese scientists, began trading on the Shanghai and New York Stock Exchanges. At the forefront of using CRISPR/Cas9 to cure diseases, a technology discovered in 20122013 by American, European and Chinese researchers, DNATech has become the world’s largest biotechnology corporation. When a Chinese scientist, trained in the USannounced in 2018 that he used CRISPR to design the first genetically edited babies, the world was shocked by the ethical implications and possible abuses of the technology. But at the Fourth International Summit on Human Genome Editing in 2022, the global scientific community agreed on strict regulations, whose implementation was facilitated by US-China cooperation. Thus, genetic tools have been used to cure diseases, not as weapons or for designer babies.

During the 2010s, 350.000 Chinese students were studying in American universities every year. But as China’s own universities grew in status, a different trend emerged: one-year exchanges between partner universities became popular and today, over a million Chinese and American students are studying in the other country, taking advantage of the visa-free travel policies implemented by Washington and Beijing in 2030. It was this tight academic cooperation that facilitated so many of the discoveries in medicine, artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, or nanotechnology over the past years.

After the Chinese government decided to dismantle the Great Firewall, Google and Facebook were finally allowed in China, integrating the world’s largest Internet user population in the global community. As Silicon Valley strengthened its ties to China, global tech boomed. Hundreds of billions of dollars in funding flowed both ways across the Pacific, while the largest tech companies established dual research and development centers, connecting the brightest minds in both China and the US. Google’s latest quantum computer, Baidu’s most advanced AI application, or SpaceX’s first mission to Mars were all the product of such international cooperation.

That mission to Mars wasn’t the first manned mission to the red planet. After the US government removed the years-long restriction on NASA’s cooperation with its Chinese counterpart, which was motivated by fears that China’s military could profit from space technologies, the two agencies decided to partner with the European Space Agency and make the first manned mission to Mars a global endeavor. It wasn’t an American, Chinese or European flag that was planted on Martian soil, but a blue flag depicting planet Earth. Scientific results from the Mars missions were released to private space companies, which were keen to start the planet’s colonization.

At the heart of US-China cooperation was the end of military competition in the early 2020s. As political trust had become strong enough, the two great powers announced coordinated military budget cuts, deciding that that 21st century will not be marked by an arms race. No longer afraid that technological progress could power a foreign military machine, tech cooperation became unrestrained. The most powerful supercomputer, a joint US-China initiative, has never been used for simulating nuclear blasts or for other military applications, but for climate models and deepening the understanding of the human brain.

But just as important were the budgetary consequences of this transition from Sino-American military competition to cooperation. As hundreds of billions of dollars became available, while jobs were becoming scarcer because of robotics and AI advances, Congress finally decided to give each American a monthly Universal Basic Income (UBI).

US-China cooperation extended around the world, especially in challenges like global warming, migration, pandemics, terrorism, development and poverty alleviation. As China became a leader in battery technology and electric vehicles, the US didn’t panic and try to save its own industry, but kept its market open to Chinese products, reducing greenhouse emissions. An old ideaproposed by the chairman of State Grid Corporation of China, the world’s largest utility company, took shape: a worldwide green supergrid that enabled solar energy from the Equator and wind energy from the Arctic to power the world. When first proposed, there were geopolitical and political fears about the project, but as trust between China and the outside world grew, while the Chinese Communist Party gradually withdrew from the economy and established an independent judiciary, the idea was embraced.

The past two decades were far from perfect. While the global community started acting against global warming, consequences have still been felt. But whether it was a typhoon in Southeast Asia, drought and famine in Africa, or rising sea levels in the Pacific, China and the US cooperated to provide aid and lessen the impact. Their cooperation was also vital in improving living standards in Africa, as China invested in infrastructure building, while the US focused on education, transparency and capacity building.

Ties between the two societies also tightened. Starting in 2020, as China became the country with the most billionaires, over 100 of them joined Bill Gates and other famous philanthropists and signed the Giving Pledge. Thirty Chinese and American billionaires later launched a $200 billion fund for global sustainable development, with outstanding results.

Celebrating 60 years of US-China relations that day in January 2039, the American president, a Mandarin speaker, looked back at the beginning of the century, when there were doubts whether China, a rising power, and the US, the established power, would be able to get along or will become victims of an inevitable conflict. It was decisions taken in those years that lowered tensions and distrust and opened the door to unprecedented cooperation between the two superpowers, setting the 21st century on the road to success.

Robots assuming the burden of the most arduous physical tasks. 3D printing transforming manufacturing. AI revolutionizing almost every field. A Universal Basic Income that allows people a decent living, while robots and AI do the job. Nanotechnology and genetic engineering curing countless diseases. And humanity colonizing Mars and expanding into outer space. The 21st century held the promise of unprecedented technological change and progress, making the world a better and safer place. At least, until China and the United States decided otherwise.

January 1st, 2019 marked 40 years of diplomatic relations between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the United States of America, but there were no real celebrations. On the contrary, 2018 was the year when it became quite clear: China and the US are becoming enemies, setting the stage for a decades-long confrontation. After 40 years of cooperation and engagement, with ups and downs, successes and disappointments, hopes and fears, the negatives are starting to outweigh the positives. The trade war is just a fluke, largely started by one man. But the underlining process of the unraveling of Sino-American relations is beyond the control of any one person, be it Donald Trump or Xi Jinping.

The trade war, while grabbing most attention, is just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath the surface, both China and the US are taking measures against one another, preparing for a confrontation that will change the 21st century for the worse. Recent months brought numerous headlines about a “New Cold War”. While the term itself suggests a lack of intellectual creativity, what is unfolding could end up being even more serious and dangerous than the confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union, even if today that seems impossible because of the hundreds of billions in trade and investments between China and the US, or the hundreds of thousands of Chinese students in US universities. But the picture could be far different in 2030, after another decade of rising tensions. The paranoia, fear and hatred of the Cold War will stage a comeback. And humanity will be caught in the middle.

After the end of the Cold War, despite cooperation and strengthening US-China relations, many in the Chinese leadership, still steeped in ideology, remained wary of the United States and “foreign hostile forces”, seeing containment and conspiracy all around. China wasn’t content with economic growth, but also wanted more influence and power, sometimes engaging in aggressive activities and unnerving its neighbors and the US. With the Soviet Union gone, some in Washington also saw the PRC as the greatest long-term threat, dismissing engagement and preparing for an inevitable conflict. This view wasn’t necessary widespread, but there were important people in both governments who feared a future conflict and wanted to get ready. Unfortunately, time did not prove them wrong. On the contrary, because US-China relations were never free from distrust, even the optimists wanted to hedge. The fact that the two countries had different political systems, with all the fears this generated, didn’t help. What started slowly, with “China’s new assertiveness” after the Great Recession and the US “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific, gathered pace and increased the influence of those who believed conflict was inevitable. Today, they might not be fully in charge in both capitals, but the longer tensions continue, their power will grow, and they might eventually end up getting their way. This is why it’s doubtful whether the unraveling can be stopped anymore.

In the two years since the Republican administration came to power, the US government has adopted measure after measure targeting China: blocking Chinese investments in the US and tightening rules against them, adopting a tougher stance against Chinese companies, introducing restrictions against Chinese companies and officialstargeting Confucius Institutes, criticizingChina’s Belt and Road Initiative, increasing military activities in the South China Sea, focusing more resources on Chinese espionage activities, toughening the procedures required for some Chinese students to get study visas and even debating whether to restrict such visas altogether. There is no point in enumerating the list of similar Chinese measures, if only because many of them were already in place long before this two year period. More troubling, over this period there has been an unprecedented shift towards pessimism in the US China-watching community, disillusioned that China hasn’t become more liberal, nor more democratic, as it grew richer.

Even if the trade war ends, the larger picture won’t change. While war is a distant prospect, both governments will start seeing the other country as the main enemy, planning their strategies as such. The boom in US-China trade and investment over the past 40 years happened because both governments encouraged these economic ties. If Washington and Beijing decide they are becoming enemies and trade and investment are vulnerabilities, economic ties will change accordingly in the next years. There are already signs that both countries are interested in decoupling their economies and becoming self-reliant. And once China and the US understand the gravity and the stakes of their confrontation, they will dedicate increasing shares of their national resources to this struggle for supremacy between them, while fears will be overhyped, cooperation and engagement will be discouraged, and the people who propose them, criticized.

And this is how China and the US have wrecked the 21st century. Most of the technological achievements of the next decades would have been accelerated by US-China cooperation. Take the recent headline-grabbing experiment in China: Chinese scientist He Jiankui used CRISPR/Cas9, a DNA-editing technology, to modify the genes of a newborn baby. The Chinese scientist received his PhD from Rice University, his American PhD adviser provided support for the project, he published an English-language YouTube video explaining and defending his experiment, and the news became public just before a global conference in Hong Kong, dedicated to the ethical dimension of just such an experiment. The use of the CRISPR technology itself in human cells was first described a few years ago by researchers in the USsome of whom were born in China. Ignore for a second the ethical dilemmas surrounding this new experiment: would it have happened if the Chinese scientist never studied in America? How many innovative treatments will be delayed or denied because China and the US stopped or discouraged scientific cooperation? In presenting legislation targeting China last year, American Senator Marco Rubio asked a rhetorical question: “Can you imagine living in a world where the cure for Alzheimer’s is controlled by Chinese pharmaceutical companies?”. In this future confrontation, the focus won’t be on discovering a cure for a worldwide disease, but whether it was the enemy who discovered it. If that’s the priority, it makes sense to discourage cooperation. But how many millions will die because the US-China confrontation prevented cooperation and delayed discovery of some treatments for years? And turning back to the ethical dilemmas, will humanity be able to prevent abuses of genetic engineering, or confront the dangers of artificial intelligence, while its two superpowers are engaged in a decades-long global confrontation?

Over the past years, the Chinese government has repeatedly stoked fears of foreigners (in 2016, a cartoon campaign warned against falling in love with handsome Westerners, who might be spies), while the FBI has sometimes mistakenly targeted Chinese-Americans in the US, afraid that anyone of Chinese ancestry could be a spy. Imagine that 10 years from now, after the FBI arrested more than a dozen Chinese students or researchers at American universities engaging in espionage, the US government finally decides to restrict visas for Chinese students. Understanding that this is not enough, the US also starts pressuring its allies, Australia, Canada, Europe, to follow suit, to make sure China doesn’t get hold of Western technology through other avenues. Just like in the now unfolding case of Huawei, some allies might acquiesce to US demands, themselves disappointed by China. Beijing, of course, would reciprocate. Scientific cooperation between China and the West would grind to a halt. There would no longer be a global community and a global exchange of ideas, even if many emerging technologies have implications for all humanity.

When it comes to a global community, the Internet will also be a victim. The Great Firewall of China already separates the Internet in two: China and most of the rest of the world. It should be clear that if China and the US view each other as enemies, Beijing would never allow an American company like Facebook or Google to operate in China. On the contrary, more and more companies would find their activities restricted. China will ask itself: if the US doesn’t trust Huawei phones, why should China trust Apple? The Great Firewall will keep on growing, adding brick after brick of distrust.

Tech research and big tech will suffer the consequences. The good days are already behind us. Afraid that state-of-the-art tech could fall into the hands of the Chinese government, the US has started restricting Chinese investments in US start-ups that research innovative technologies with possible military applications. Unfortunately, most of the emergent technologies, from AI to quantum computing, are dual-use. If China and the US see each other as enemies, it makes sense to prevent further cooperation in these fields. But it will be harder and harder for American and Chinese researchers to cooperate or work in the other country.

Most of the costs of such measures are difficult to quantify, because they are benefits that could have been possible if the measures wouldn’t have been implemented. Who can say what monumental discovery or treatment was lost because a Chinese student didn’t have the chance to come study in America under a leading professor, surrounded by other bright minds from all around the world? But there are ways in which the costs can be identified.

Take self-driving cars. The case of Huawei is a perfect example to understand the future of US-China relations. In the past, Huawei, a Chinese company, engaged in stealing intellectual property or corruption, but as it grew larger, it also invested in research and development and became an innovator itself, including in 5G mobile communications, which will enable the Internet of Things. Huawei has been under fire in the US as a potential security threat since at least 2008, but until recently, there has been very little public evidence about espionage facilitated by it (the past year brought a report about espionage from Australia and the unfolding case in Poland). Nonetheless, Western fears hinge on the possibility that Huawei could be forced by the Chinese government to cooperate with it. And the fears do make sense: if the US regards China as an enemy that it might one day confront, it’s rational that it should avoid creating a vulnerability by giving Huawei control over its telecommunications infrastructure, regardless of how innovative the company might be. It’s a case in which security fears override the efficiency of the free market. Little does it matter that company X makes great products, if it might help a foreign enemy one day. You’re safer without those products. So what will happen when Google and Baidu, or other American or Chinese companies, will introduce self-driving cars? If you can’t trust a Chinese company with your data, then you certainly can’t trust it with both your data and your life. It will make sense for both China and the US to ban self-driving cars from the other country, no matter how good they are. And it’s highly unlikely that all companies will have the same crash rate. One will have a slightly better technology, leading to less fatalities. Hundreds of people will die unnecessary deaths in China, the US, or Europe because that better foreign system was not available to them.

Even if it already has the world’s largest military budget, the US will need to increase military spending in order to boost its navy and air force and keep up with China. Just a 10% increase means $70 billion that instead of going to medical research, education or poverty alleviation, will go to building destroyers, drones and fighter jets. Over the decades, China and the US will waste trillions on military equipment that will hopefully never be used and will end up decommissioned. And if the US will engage in a Cold War-style struggle with a nominally communist country, with all the associated military costs, the dream of implementing a universal basic income is unlikely to come true.

In the next decades, humanity will start colonizing outer space, though not as one civilization, but during a new space race. The US government has lately left space to private companies, but that will change once China and the US will begin their showdown and Washington realizes that it might have been left behind. A space race could have advantages, as fear will stimulate progress. But instead of sharing results or opinions, scientists will conduct the same missions and experiments, and hide lessons learned from past mistakes. Instead of helping each other, both countries will have incentives to sabotage the other’s projects. And how will the two colonizers get along on the Martian surface? Sure, Mars is a big place, but so is the Pacific Ocean, yet that doesn’t seem to lessen the tensions.

And then, there are the big challenges, like global warming. If the world community barely managed to get its act together to fight climate change in the past three decades of unipolarity, will cooperation be possible in an era of global conflict? Ironically, the people of the US and China, the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, are some of the least concerned about global warming. When Donald Trump announced that he is abandoning the Paris Agreement, he blamed the costsfor the American economy. Regardless of whether that’s true, if any other Chinese or American leader will decide that fighting climate change is diverting economic resources away from the great struggle for supremacy, the logical decision will be to focus on the urgent threat. And without US-China cooperation, there will be no global solutions. There also won’t be any cooperation on development or poverty alleviation, even if 800 million people worldwide are still undernourished.

On top of the countless opportunity costs, there are also the frightening consequences of the coming US-China showdown. Pretty much all the advanced technologies of the future will have military applications. Robots and AI can put a lot of people out of work, but their deadly applications are far more frightening. China already has a strategy of civil-military fusion, leveraging new technologies for military use. In order to compete, the US will have to follow suite. There has been much controversy about the ethics of Google working on military projects with the Pentagon. If China and the US will be engaged in a global struggle, American universities and tech companies won’t have much of a choice. Humanity’s greatest technological achievements will end up being used as weapons. Acquiring a new tech side, the military-industrial-tech complex will keep getting bigger, in both countries. Debating how to confront fake news, many in the US seem to believe that social media platforms need to be censured, ahem, regulated, in order to protect democracy, while the Chinese government already monitors its entire population. Though the PRC is accused of influence operations in foreign democracies, it hasn’t yet adopted a strategy of sowing chaos abroad or exporting authoritarianism. But one day, it might. And in the face of an existentialist foreign threat, freedom risks becoming secondary to security.

Only imagination limits the scary possibilities. What if, as its population ages and shrinks, the PRC, with a history of regulating reproduction, decides to use technologies such as CRISPR to genetically engineer better babies, to increase its odds of emerging victorious in the great struggle with the US? How many years will it take before a US politician runs for president warning of the need to fill the IQ gap? Ethics were so 2018.

And, of course, nobody can dismiss the possibility of war. While unlikely in the near future, there are quite a few territorial disputes around China that could spark a naval confrontation. Even if China and the US will avoid an all-out war with nuclear undertones, how many people will die in proxy wars between the two, in perfect opportunities to test all those new weapons they’ve invested billions in?

Today, all these nightmare scenarios seem far away and some are still be optimistic about the 21st century. Global warming, inequality, the emergence of AI or misuses of new technologies look like humanity’s greatest challenges. Yet, our greatest threat will be geopolitical and ideological. And we will still face all those other challenges, but in the background of a global confrontation between China and the US. The irony is that we’ve been here before. The beginning of the 20th century was filled with optimism, as the world made great technological progress and nations engaged in trade and cooperation. The last century ended up a tragedy, as hundreds of millions died, victims of wars and ideologies. In the end, it seems that we just couldn’t learn those lessons. With all the technological and scientific progress we’ve made, reshaping the human DNA, creating artificial intelligence, exploring and one day colonizing space, we still could not escape our most basic instincts. Two different groups of people just couldn’t find a way to get along. The People’s Republic of China and the United States of America have celebrated 40 years of diplomatic relations filled with progress and achievements, but we might have ended up celebrating the first year of a new era of conflict, that will remake our world for the worse. The 21st century seemed bright, but get ready, because a long, cold winter is coming.

Photo credits (in order of appearance): US and PRC flags (Flickr/U.S. Department of Agriculture), Illustration of Mars (Flickr/Kevin Gill), US and PRC flags against blue sky (Flickr/CDC Global), US and PRC flags waving in front of a Chinese destroyer conducting a Hawaii port visit (Wikimedia/U.S. Navy), Carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere (Wikimedia/NASA), Google self-driving car in California (Flickr/R Boed), USS John C. Stennis, USS Ronald Reagan and support ships in the Philippine Sea (Flickr/U.S. Pacific Fleet).

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Andrei Lungu​

Andrei Lungu is president of RISAP. His research interests include China’s foreign policy and its domestic politics, Sino-American relations and the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific.

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