To foresee and help navigate the future relationship over the next 20 years and beyond between China and the United States, the two countries need to think outside the U.S.-China bilateral box. Relations between Beijing and Washington will not be determined only by bilateral issues such as Taiwan, Tibet, trade, human rights, PLA military modernization, and other areas that are chronic points of tension but which the two sides have learned to manage.
Rather, the future of U.S.-China ties will be largely shaped by global trends, challenges and disruptive changes that will provide the ever-changing strategic context of the U.S.-China relationship. And the U.S.-China relationship will in turn be a major factor shaping the global strategic environment, especially whether cooperation predominates over competition among the major powers in the face of tomorrow’s inevitable common challenges.
US Vice-President Joe Biden and Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping certainly discussed global problems and threats beyond the usual litany of bilateral differences. But did they look forward five, ten or 20 years to the world that China and the United States will face and the problems they will confront, many of which are common challenges requiring cooperative action? The U.S. and China need a common vision of future challenges and opportunities as a foundation for building a more collaborative relationship.
Unprecedented long-term trends and potential disruptive change could imperil the prosperity and security of China, the United States and the rest of the world. These volatile trends include not only proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, international crime, and potential pandemics – all of which are likely to continue to haunt the global community with the potential to create international crises at almost any moment. They also include long-term trends that are worsening and that could interact with each other to produce sharp discontinuities such as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the near-collapse of the global financial system in 2008, and the uprisings of the Arab Spring.
These trends include rapidly growing demand – on the order of 50-100% increases – for food, water, energy, raw materials, and other commodities over the next 20-40 years. Under the current “business as usual” economic development and resource use model, the supply is not keeping up with demand and in many areas is unlikely to be able to do so in the future thus the supply/demand gaps will continue to widen. The demand for increased food production and fresh water supplies can potentially be met with far-reaching policy changes, new technologies, international agreements, and other steps. But these are not now in the cards and the impact of climate change is likely to exacerbate famine and water shortages and thus complicate efforts to meet the food and water challenges. Similarly, the growing demand for energy theoretically could be met by conservation and new technologies, especially a rapid transition to renewable energy sources. But we are not on that trajectory. Rather, demand for oil is likely to increase substantially. To get an idea of the scale of the challenge, consider if China, which has emerged as the largest automobile market in the world, were to consume petroleum at the per capita rate of Americans. China would then need nearly 100 millions of barrels of oil per day. But the world now produces only about 85 million barrels a day now for everyone on the planet and is not likely to significantly increase output, certainly not on the scale that could meet the demand that is on the horizon from people not only in China, but in India, Brazil, Indonesia – virtually all emerging countries – where growing middle classes want to drive cars. Meeting this understandable demand can only be achieved by changing course in energy consumption on a global scale through transition, for example, to electric cars powered by renewable energy.
A key driver of the growing demand for resources, water and food is demographic – the three “three billion.” Rough estimates suggest that the world will see a 2-3 billion increase in population by 2050, 2-3 billion more people in cities as global urbanization moves from the current 50% to 70%, and 2-3 billion more people in the global middle class. Moreover, middle class currently means growth in consumption of energy, water, natural resources, and literally going up the food chain to eat more meat and other grain-intensive foods. Meeting the challenges of this population growth (and the inverse of population aging and decline in developed countries and China) will be a major preoccupation of governments, which will need to ensure adequate supplies of food, water and other resources. They will also be beset with increasing with the social, political, economic, environmental and security implications of such huge demographic shifts in a very short period. In addition, they will likely have to cope with increasing climate change concerns, including both a wide range of negative impacts of global warming and growing pressure to transition to low-carbon economies while maintaining economic growth.
The Chinese people know very well the problem of worsening water shortages, extreme weather events, melting glaciers and sea level rise – all of which may have grave economic, political and social consequences for China. There have been recent record high grain prices and there is every reason to believe that the upward trend in food prices will continue indefinitely with huge inflationary implications for China as well as other countries. This is also true of energy and most other resources and commodities as the gaps between demand and supply widen, leading to shortages and price increases for food, energy, water, non-renewable resources and commodities. These shortages and inflation could to lead to faltering economies, political and social instability, failing states and migration. While poor nations – and the poor within nations – will suffer the consequences first and most dramatically, the impact will likely be strongly felt by the global middle class with grave political consequences.
While we can identify these long-term trends, the world of the future will not be a simple extrapolation of current trends into the future. Rather, global trends are interrelated and interactive complex systems, producing disruptive and non-linear change. Such disruptive change is likely to be increasingly frequent and globally consequential in an increasingly interconnected world. We can foresee the forces shaping the future and the “inevitable surprises” ahead resulting from the inherently uncertain outcomes of the complex interactions of these forces and their second and third order impacts on human society in an increasingly interdependent world. This foresight – including the potential impact of growing demand/supply gaps, climate change, and other long-term trends that pose great challenges to all nations – calls for strong international cooperation and leadership to reduce the likelihood of worst-case outcomes and increase resilience of nations and the international community in the face of the unavertable.
Are China and the United States up to the challenge of placing top priority on the common long-term strategic challenges and building the kind of collaborative relationship that will enable them to weather the coming storms of the 21st Century and to engage the global community to help move the world to a more sustainable future?
Banning Garrett is the Director of the Asia Program and Strategic Foresight Initiative at the Atlantic Council. This was originally published at CHINAUSFocus.