Post-9/11, it’s hard to imagine a world where terrorism isn’t the most disconcerting threat to the United States, but if chatter among the bigwigs in Washington is any indication, it’s an emerging powerhouse preparing a showdown 40 years in the making — the People’s Republic of China.

The situation surrounding China and its relationship with the world — and, in turn, the United State’s relationship with China — is rapidly evolving, with disturbing possibilities and little in the way of silver linings, Tom Hanson told attendees of the Gordon Rosenmeier Forum for State and Local Government Wednesday, Nov. 6, at Central Lakes College’s Chalberg Theatre.

“Washington is freaked out,” said Hanson, who repeatedly noted escalating tensions and their technological underpinnings have led to no shortage of hand-wringing on Capitol Hill.

Hanson, a former foreign service officer with the U.S. Department of State, currently serves as a diplomat in residence at the Alworth Institute at the University of Minnesota Duluth and has opened embassies abroad, served as director of NATO and European Affairs and worked with the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C.

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China’s rise has primarily manifested in three areas — namely, Hanson said, its surging economic prowess, it’s push to establish a robust and aggressive foreign policy in recent years (particularly in Asia and Africa), as well as the country’s recent technological leaps that outstrip the rest of the globe.

This, coupled with China's aggressive foreign policy and its technological advancements, caused a series of “jolts” to the United States’ government, Hanson said, which led officials to consider an enormous paradigm shift in how the country operates its economy, how it incentivizes allies to resist China’s influence and how it needs to shift from a globalist perspective to one that’s more homeland-entrenched and based in a North American compact.

This factors into the larger picture of government stability and how each populace is engaged, said Hanson, who pointed to enormous wealth inequality in both nations as internal issues both sides need to address, or can exploit in this international struggle.

“You can feel it’s different. The day is different. The emotions are different. It’s happening around the world, it’s not just here,” Hanson said. “Democracy and its basic tenets are under attack.”

The Asian superpower is surpassing the United States in economic growth and, in some cases, the Chinese are lapping Western innovation with troubling implications — everything from genetically modified babies and sophisticated facial recognition systems, to cutting-edge quantum technology (or, to risk oversimplification, computers that do not depend on binary code and are, thus, virtually unhackable).

China’s approach is low-key, sometimes clinical and ruthlessly pragmatic — a far cry from the showy, sweeping moves made by the United States since the end of World War II, Hanson said, when the U.S. owned more than half the world’s gross domestic product and faced a different rival to one-up on the world stage, the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, the United States has largely gutted its own diplomatic services, Hanson said, and intertwined what remains with the nation’s extensive military initiatives.

China is following some plays of the West’s old playbook by establishing strong ties with burgeoning countries in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia; investing heavily in science and technology and education; as well as opening up its markets to free enterprise. Actually, there are more free-trading public companies in China than the United States, Hanson noted, while the former has an upward trajectory and the latter has seen a number of its firms go private after President Donald Trump’s tax cuts.

In prior decades, the United States often favored a more diplomatic strategy — positively influencing China, forming bonds with the eastern power and guiding it toward a healthier form of democracy, a la Western developed nations.

This era — where China has been viewed as a “responsible stakeholder” and should be “invited to the table” — gained prominence during the Nixon Administration and remained the reigning philosophy through the Obama years. But China’s descent back into ‘80s-style totalitarianism — with President Xi Jinping now elected for life — brought a more hard line, adversarial approach to the fore with the likes of Trump.

A former foreign service officer with the U.S. Department of State, Tom Hanson currently serves as a diplomat in residence at the Alworth Institute at the University of Minnesota Duluth and has opened embassies abroad, served as director of NATO and European Affairs and worked with the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch
A former foreign service officer with the U.S. Department of State, Tom Hanson currently serves as a diplomat in residence at the Alworth Institute at the University of Minnesota Duluth and has opened embassies abroad, served as director of NATO and European Affairs and worked with the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch

In keeping with the rest of the seminar, Hanson’s assessment of Trump’s foreign policy was mixed, nuanced and largely apolitical. On one hand, he criticized State Secretary Mike Pompeo’s decision to hardball long-time allies in Europe and Central Asia in an effort to stop an 80-country “new silk road” compact created by China to establish trade infrastructure networks. Essentially, the United States is offering little more than threats and absolutes, he said, while China is offering a way forward and economic prosperity.

At the same time, Hanson noted, Trump’s trade war with China, which — if a new round of tariffs are added on Dec. 1 — will mean all China’s imports, more than $500 billion, will be heavily taxed. It represents a proactive move to oppose to Chinese expansion, Hanson observed, which would be unheard of during Obama or George W. Bush’s tenures.

It’s important to note that China remains open to international dialogue and that, with few signs to the contrary, the Eastern power isn’t interested in escalated or open forms of conflict with the United States, Hanson said, though the United States cannot continue to address the problem as it has for the last 40 years.

Against an adversary of China’s might and a nation with a culture, government and economy mobilized in synch to overpower the West, Hanson added, there will need to be some soul-searching and changes made stateside.

“This is so different from the past. Washington is looking at this and trying to figure out how do we react? We’re really dealing with a different civilization here,” Hanson said. “I’m not pessimistic, but we need to rethink some very basic things here.”