Carleton College's student newspaper since 1877

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Convocation: “How should we think about China?”

<an diplomat and prominent figure in the international policy community Michael Armacost ’58 opened his convocation speech by addressing the question many scholars and individuals around the world share: “How should we think about China?”

During his tenure as the U.S. Ambassador to Japan and the Philippines, Armacost drew upon his experience with Asian countries and their interactions to consider future dealings of the United States with China, a rapidly burgeoning military, economic, and global force.  Agreeing with Napoleon Bonaparte’s characterization of China as “a sleeping giant,” Armacost drew upon statistical evidence to confirm the country’s dramatic rise: “since 1978, China has grown at an annual rate of ten percent, supplanting Japan of being the second largest economy,” he said.
Armacost’s presentation focused on three titles that are identified with China from an American standpoint: a military threat, a primary global partner, and a ferocious economic competitor. In light of these three general identifications, Armacost then argued why he viewed each of these to be implausible.

According to Armacost, the concern that China is a military risk is “largely based on assumptions of the strategic conduct of emerging powers – people think China wants to single-handedly reshape the happenings of the world.” Others, he continued, look at the continuous build-up of national defense, and the rapid re-deployment on the country’s eastern coasts, in addition to the emphasis placed upon developing the navy and space technology. However, he argued, China will probably not pose a military threat because it “still remains a very poor country”  and there are strong internal problems it must first manage and resolve. With huge demographic movements, most clearly seen in the stream of rural to urban migration, the priority is peace on the borders within its own provinces and districts. After that, China will have to look towards its long frontier and border with fourteen other countries. For the time being, Armacost argued, “China needs peace, needs friends, and needs to consolidate its internal issues.”

In terms of China serving as a global partner with the United States, Armacost emphasized that he “does not see a G2 between America and China to be on the horizon.”  Recognizing that collaboration between Washington and Beijing is essential to solving global issues – most notably nuclear or economic – he argued that “China does not seem to be willing to devote its power to solving international issues.” Drawing upon the 2009 G20 summit in Copenhagen, Armacost argued that China “played a lot of defense” and let other countries initiate efforts to tackle global issues, essentially taking a backseat on major issues such as the dissuading of the North Korean nuclear program. This seemed to suggest, said Armacost, that “China intends on keeping a low political profile.” Furthermore, the United States itself “does not seem to want to share its superpower status with China – or indeed any country.”  Thus, Armacost accentuated that “turning a bilateral into a G2 would only provide an illusion.”

In regards to China becoming an economic competitor that will eventually supplant the United States, Armacost drew attention to how many current predictions of China’s exorbitant growth “are heavily based upon extrapolations of past performance,” and that economic growth tends to slow as countries mature. Reinforcing his argument that China will not overtake the United States, Armacost drew attention to how China is currently in “the demographic sweet-spot” –  the ratio of dependents to workers is small, with very few retirees. But in the immediate future, such demographics will be ultimately impossible to maintain, and quickly this “optimal labor force would only stagnate.” Finally,  there is an element of political corruption and shortcomings: Armacost acknowledged that the Chinese are “unnaturally skilled and pragmatic, but they will need to bring this up against their own government” to develop and advance.

In conclusion, Armacost compared the response of the United States to China with its reaction to the Soviet threat during the Cold War. Mentioning that “we were more optimistic back then,” he argued that America needs to get its act together. He pointed to many faults in our system: “We tolerate incredible amounts of dysfunction. We have piled up huge debts. Our teacher unions are more concerned with their own interests than actually those they represent – those of our children.” Although many continue to regard China as a looming threat, Armacost emphasized the need to solve America’s own internal problems, for if we fail at that, “then we will not be able to properly address the issue of China’s rise.”

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All The Carletonian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *