America Is Fumbling Its Most Important Relationship

The United States has a China problem—and pundits and politicians are making it worse.

Thwe Atlantic
Date: May 28, 2018
By: James Fallows
Thomas Peter / Reuters

Thomas Peter / Reuters

China is an increasing problem for the United States. But the latest reactions and assumptions about China among America’s political-media leadership class hold every prospect of making China-related problems much worse. How can this be? It involves the familiar tension between short-term political shrewdness and longer-term strategic wisdom. Here’s the pattern I see:

Back in the 1980s, when Japan was on its path of industrial ascent, I was based there for The Atlantic. In those days the longtime U.S. ambassador in Tokyo, former Senator and Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, said in virtually every speech that U.S.-Japanese interactions were “the most important bilateral relationship in the world, bar none.” Mansfield, a great politician and patriot, used this phrase so reliably and relentlessly that “bar none” became among the Japan crowd an air-quote shorthand. “We had a great time at that sushi place last night. The unagi was the tastiest—bar none!”

Mansfield’s maxim doesn’t seem true anymore, and probably was not accurate even at the time. (What about the Soviet Union, then in the depths of its Cold War standoff with the United States? What about China, just beginning its reforms?) But I’ve often thought about the assertion as a useful rhetorical device. It’s instructive to think about the relationships for the US that are “most” by a range of a variety of standards.

I would assert that as of 2018:

  • America’s most volatile relationship is with North Korea, for obvious reasons.
  • Its most damaging relationship would seem to be with Russia.
  • Its most dangerously taken-for-granted relationships would be (a four-way tie) with Mexico, Canada, the European Union as an economic group, and NATO as a strategic alliance. Each of these relationships is crucial to America’s long-term economic, diplomatic, military, and national-security well-being. All are now under more-or-less acute strain, based on each group’s calculation on how long Trump-style erratic “America First!”-ism will guide U.S. actions.

Its most subject-to-change relationships are, for a widely varying range of reasons, with Saudi Arabia, with Iran, with Israel, with Pakistan, with Turkey, with Australia, with South Korea, with the Philippines, with half a dozen others I can think of.

But its most important relationship, beyond any reasonable dispute—“bar none,” you might say—is with China. No other country has the prospect of eventually having a larger economy than America’s—which sooner or later China will inevitably do. (With four times as many people, it need only become one-quarter as rich as the United States per capita to take the lead.) No other nation outside North America is as tightly integrated with U.S. corporate production, consumption, distribution, and marketing systems. While Russia still has many more nuclear weapons, no other country could even dream of becoming an across-the-board military rival to the United States, as China might.