Back to the future
During the first half of the first decade of the new millennium, while struggling with my doctoral dissertation on China’s economy at a university in Tianjin, China, I visited the United States several times on personal business and for additional research work.
Travelling between China and the U.S. often reminded me of an American science fiction adventure film, ``Back to the Future.” Somehow, it was like a time travel to the different periods of history in terms of economic development and standards of living. To a certain extent the Human Development Index released by the U.N. Development Program every year supported my perception. However, my perception is changing.
Recently, during almost a two-month-long stay in the vicinity of New York City, I had opportunities to personally witness and experience changes in the U.S. economic environment. Serious concern over the high unemployment rate and sense of helplessness were expressed unanimously by many of those I have encountered.
On the current affairs shelves of a leading book store, a number of publications about the decline of the American empire drew my attention. Most of them recollect the way it used to be for the U.S. and how she fell behind. Certainly, these books are not neglecting to analyze the challenges America faces and try to spell out what is needed to be done to sustain American dream. ``Something is wrong” and ``Changes are necessary” were the main messages of those publications.
Samuel P. Huntington said, ``The United States has been the sole state with pre-eminence in every domain of power ― economic, military, diplomatic, ideological, technological, and cultural ― with the reach and capabilities to promote its interests in virtually every part of the world.”
Some other political scientists resonate, ``When America has an itch, the world scratches. When it gets a cold, the world sneezes. Its actions, and its failures to act, often send ripples around the globe. For some, it is a model for other societies to emulate.” It still seems to be a valid observation. Paradoxically, America’s recent financial predicament has sent ripples around the global economy. In return, the global economic recession has resulted in a meltdown of U.S. financial institutions.
It has been argued for some time that hyper-power America has begun to decline. Partially, it could have been a result of America’s overstretch. President Obama once said, ``More than any other nation, the USA has underwritten global security for six decades.” Invoking the connection between national security and domestic economy, he cited the need to rebuild strength at home. It was apparent that mounting domestic economic obligations would narrow the scope of American foreign policy.
However, President Obama, in his address last week at the opening of the annual meeting of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations, said his administration was turning its focus to the booming Asia-Pacific region. This message reflects America’s concern over growing Chinese influence in Asia.
While the United States has recently been suffered by economic setbacks, China has thus far shown a remarkable ability to stay on a steep upward trajectory. The pace of change in China is such that one economist has jokingly calculated that a year in Chinese time is equivalent to five years anywhere else. China's relative insulation from the worst of the world financial crisis, and the continuing strength of its currency contributed to a marked upsurge in the confidence felt by many Chinese people about their nation's global status.
In the meantime, for more than two months, discontent American protesters have been staging series of demonstrations in the Wall Street financial district of New York City and a few other urban areas. Union workers, students, unemployed people enchanted ``We are the 99 percent,” an expression of their grievances about economic inequities. As of last week, protesters were evicted from the sites they occupied in New York City, but are trying to reshape the movement in a different fashion to broaden their influence.
An international economist Dambisa Moyo observes, ``The financial crisis of 2008 has exposed another world upheaval many decades in the making: namely, the first tangible indication that a new transference of economic power has already begun; that of the West to the East, and perhaps more crucially from the US to China.”
The 19th century saw a disastrous collapse of living standards in China. Particularly, China’s economic fate in the twentieth century was a miserable one. However, once upon a time, in 1820, China’s share of world output was close to 33 percent. Now, it is projected that thanks to the exploding economy China’s GDP would surpass that of the U.S. in 2027.
At the recent Asian Summit the U.S. President reiterated strong U.S. commitments in Asia, and on the same occasion, the Chinese Prime Minister reacted with strong warning on ``outside forces” interference in a regional fight over the control of the South China Sea. The U.S. and China are locked in a struggle for power and influence in Asia. Contest for supremacy is continuing, and the geopolitical environment is rapidly changing.
Someday, a time machine in a new version of ``Back to the Future” might be heading to a different destination.
The writer is a chair professor of the Catholic University of Daegu and a show host on Arirang TV. He previously headed the Foreign News Division of the Korea Overseas Information Service. He can be reached at email@example.com.