CROSBY -- The world is on the brink of a new geopolitical era defined by a complex and evolving chess match of will, diplomacy and might between the United States and an ascending rival -- the People’s Republic of China.

That situation surrounding China and its relationship with the world -- and, in turn, the United State’s relationship with China -- is rapidly evolving, Tom Hanson told attendees of his seminar, and in such a sudden and concerning way that it’s led to no shortage of hand-wringing on Capitol Hill.

“Compared to a year before, there has been a sea change,” said Hanson, drawing upon updates at a recent U.S. Department of State conference in May. “Things are not the same as they were a year ago. Washington, D.C. is framing everything -- I mean everything -- as a long term competition, even confrontation with China.”

“This has crystalized quite rapidly,” he added. “You have to understand one thing -- Washington is freaked out by China’s rise.”

More than 100 people of the lakes area packed in a conference room for a presentation on China, its geopolitics and American foreign policy in regards to the Asian superpower. The seminar was hosted by Unlimited Learning the afternoon of Tuesday, Aug. 13, at Heartwood Senior Living Center in Crosby.

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.

As such, China’s rise is best exemplified in two areas -- namely, Hanson said, it’s economic prowess and recent wilinessnes to use it on the world stage, as well as the country’s recent technological leaps that outstrip the rest of the globe.

China may be still playing second fiddle to the United States, but that gap is rapidly vanishing, Hanson noted, and in some cases the Chinese are surpassing 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, 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.

Still, China is following some plays of the West’s old playbook -- 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.

In prior decades, the United States has 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. But China’s descent back into ‘80s-style totalitarianism has brought a more hardline, adversarial approach to the fore.

“The shift is coming. The question is do we confront them, do we try to stop them, do we play them to our advantage?” Hanson said of discussions swirling in the political sphere. “This is the whole debate we have to start having.”

Speaker Tom 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. Faced with the looming threat of China, Hanson said Capitol Hill is "freaked out." Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch
Speaker Tom 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. Faced with the looming threat of China, Hanson said Capitol Hill is "freaked out." Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch

Enter President Donald Trump.

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 criticised State Secretary Mike Pompeo’s decision to hardball long-time allies in Europe and Central Asia in an effort to stop an 80-country 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 offered a critique of 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’s unfortunate that American agriculture is being hit hard, especially in the case of certain markets like soy, Hanson said, but Trump is also imposing tariffs that to a degree reflect China’s heavy teriff’s on all imports. These sanctions may also look to incentivize companies to leave China and establish themselves elsewhere, including the United States.

Bob Passi, a Baxter resident attending the seminar, criticized what he saw as heavy-handed forms of totalitarianism perpetrated by the United States abroad in service to its own interests. These tactics are largely self-defeating, Passi noted.

“Trying to be in competition with China, rather than find more ways to work with them, is not wise,” Passi said. “It’s being a blunt instrument. I’d rather find a cooperative way to solve things. If you’re going to do away with diplomacy, what do you have left?”

What it comes down to is a conflict that’s reaching a breaking point, Hanson said, a war of attrition both China and the United States believe will end in their favor.

But, as Hanson noted, “History never stands still.” It remains to be seen how other developments -- such as a worldwide recession, possible war with Iran, or riots in Paris, Moscow and Hong Kong, look to reconfigure the chess board once again. In a slug-fest between the heavy-weights of history, everyone gets bruised, whether they’re American, Chinese, European or citizens of the world, he noted.

“These are high stakes,” Hanson said. “We need to redefine the threat in global terms. It’s a threat to all of us.”