As Election Days Nears

Oct 31, 2014 by

Too few of us will go to the polls on November 4th. As we look around the world we are reminded: VOTE: or liberty is history.


President Obama will be in China on Veterans Day and as Hong Kong boils with pro-democracy demonstrators and China reminds us not to mettle in their internal affairs.

President Obama and President Xi will meet in China on November 10-11 aa part of his administration’s Asia Pacific re-balance strategy and to attend the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit. President Obama has an additional planned sleep over in Beijing for a bilateral meeting with President Xi the following day.

Oh how the world turns.

Vice President Joe Biden reminded us of the integral nature of the relationship between the US and China recently speaking at the Harvard Kennedy School saying the international order is “literally fraying at the seams.” The VP continued, “Managing our relationship with China is the single most essential strategy for long-term global peace and prosperity.”

To Understand China


I have been “digging” China for many years. As a youngster, I attempted to dig a hole to China in my backyard after naively believing my mom telling me: “Son, if you dig long enough, you will reach China”.

As a boy of ten, I was intrigued with The People’s Republic of China (PRC) the first time my teacher spoke of “Red China”. I did not learn until later in life that “Red” was pejorative term, referring to Communist China. In 1963, we were still over a decade away from normalized relations with the PRC. I have to admit I was growing a bit annoyed with the Chinese people as my mom kept using them to coerce me to “eat your peas” and other despicable vegetables saying, “Children are starving in China.”

In 1989, my first trip to China coincided with the Tiananmen massacre- where the People’s Liberation Army turned on the Chinese people. Engraved in my memory are students in a crowd of nearly a million asking me to “Describe democracy, describe freedom?”

How times have changed.

Today many worry that China is poised to eat our lunch as it grows its economic and military might. The Chinese economy seeks what it considers its rightful place as the world’s largest economy – a position it held in 18 of the previous 20 centuries. Many predict they may well reach it in the next few years.

As the tectonic plates of world power shift, there are likely to be eruptions and disruptions.

In an editorial for the state-run People’s Daily, Chinese PLA Professor Han Xudong warns that Beijing should prepare itself for a Third World War. He notes that “the world has entered an era of new forms of global war based around the Internet and the concept of sea power.”

A Western View


My life as a participant/observer has revolved around China – crisscrossing that huge country for the past three decades. The change, growth, and development in this country – formerly dotted with gray Mao suits and bicycles – is mind-boggling. It makes the British and American Industrial Revolutions pale in comparison in terms of speed and scope. Nearly half a billion people have moved from abject poverty to the middle class in China in the past three decades alone. It’s as phenomenal as it is incomprehensible.

With Growth Comes Fear

It seems that the only human who may truly LIKE change is a baby. China’s rise need not come at the U.S.’s demise. Yet many in America – from political and business leaders to “Joe 6-pack” struggle with the growth and inevitable rise of China.

There is fear and distrust on both sides of the ocean about the true intentions of our respective countries. Many argue there are too many strategic and economic interests between our nations for the most important bilateral relationship on the planet to completely unravel. Going forward, every major world decision will intersect at the corner of Beijing and Washington, DC. How this relationship is managed will impact our respective people -and all of humanity.

Bi-lateral Leadership

There has been much dialog and speculation around China and the U.S.’s ability to dance around the “Thucydides Trap.”

The “Thucydides Trap” harkens back to the Peloponnesian War of 431 B.C. to 404 B.C. when the rising Greek city-state of Athens fought the reigning city-state of Sparta. The Greek historian Thucydides famously wrote, “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.”

Will the fear of a rising China provoke so much fear in the existing world order that it ultimately lead to conflict between the US and China?

Can China and the U.S. avoid this trap? It is inevitable that China, as an emerging economic and military power, may cause friction in the relationship by rearranging the chess board of world politics. We are currently witnessing this as China gobbles up commodities around the world to feed its industrial might even as it makes territorial claims in the East and South China Seas.

China’s neighbors and the rest of the world are attempting to figure out how best to engage an ever-rising, at times bellicose, Beijing as it stretches its wings while shaking off the decades of humiliation to regain its rightful place on the world stage.

To complicate matters, Chinese leaders have equal pressure from within managing Hong Kong, Tibet and the Uighur issues.

Making Sense

A pre-eminent China Scholar, David M. Lampton, Professor of China Studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the Director of China Studies there, also served as the former president of the prestigious National Committee on United States-China Relations. In his book, “Same Bed, Different Dreams: Managing U.S.-China Relations, 1989-2000, Lampton wrote about many challenges, foreshadowing those that face our two nations today. He clearly spelled out China’s often vastly differing perspectives and views of the world along with its basic orientation that would and have been proven as misunderstandings, resulting in tensions with its old U.S. ping pong buddy.

In his book, Lampton’s argues: “The processes of economic and information globalization, along with the development of international regimes and multilateral organizations, have landed America and China increasingly near one another in the same global bed.” He continues, “But our respective national institutions, interests, leadership and popular perceptions, and the very characters of our two peoples, ensure that our nations have substantially different dreams.” It is this constant struggle, Lampton argues, that has provided the “underlying dynamic” of U.S.-China relations since the end of the Cold War, and will continue to do so in the future.


Having watched China throughout my life while living in the West, I would suggest the relationship between the U.S. and China will be constantly and continuously one that places our two countries at the entrance to the proverbial fork in the road. Our relationship has the potential of becoming one of great cooperation, collaboration, and engagement. But it could also degenerate into one of bitter strain, consternation, and conflict.

Moving forward, one of the greatest challenges that leaders in both China and the U.S. must address is the growing fear and apprehension of its own people. Perception can quickly become reality, as Mao once lamented, “A single spark can create a raging forest fire.”

All Politics Is Local

In the conclusion of his newly published book, “Following The Leader: Ruling China, from Deng Xioaping to Xi Ping”, Lampton argues that several forces are contending for primacy in China, and for that matter, in the United States: “Domestic politics, interdependence, big-power realist thinking, and the technologic action-reaction cycle. Given these contending impulses, the way forward is to construct an inclusive balance of forces in Asia that restrains assertive impulses, builds inclusive, multilateral economic and security institutions, and reinforces interdependence, thereby raising the cost of unrestrained conflicts.”

So we come full circle: Is The World Big Enough For China AND the U.S.? The answer must be, “Of course!” The thought of the relationship between our two great nations unraveling is unthinkable and would have deadly consequences with global reverberations.

Today I eat peas. And I keep digging in hopes that our respective leaders will follow the cautionary approach embodied in Deng Xiaoping’s motto, “Mozhe shitou guo he”: “Crossing the river by feeling for stones.”

The past 35 years in China have been not unlike a roller-coaster on steroids -I suspect the next decades will be like a bumper car ride during an earthquake.

My hope is we will continue to build the educational, economic, scientific, governmental, and people-to-people bridges between the U.S. and China that will enhance the friendship and trust that is necessary for our two countries to prosper. An unstable China, makes for an unstable world and visa versa. We need to keep in mind our destinies are on many levels inextricably linked.

Let’s move forward with our eyes wide open, building bridges between us with the clear understanding that digging moats or building Great Walls have never been a successful long term strategy.

Good luck in your upcoming meeting President Obama and Xi– the world needs you to be successful.

As the world turns ought to be a stark reminder of the power of our individual vote.


Tom Watkins  (His T-shirt reads “Michigan” in Chinese) is a former Michigan state superintendent of schools, president and CEO of the economic council of Palm Beach County, Fl., and is currently the president and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority. He advises the MEDC, U of M, Confucius Institute, the Chinese Association of Greater Detroit and the Detroit Chinese Business Association. He can be emailed at:, or followed on twitter at: @tdwatkins88.

As Election Days Nears |

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