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OPINION

To effectively counter a rising China, America must face a domestic reckoning

America needs to focus on rebuilding its own domestic economy and healing deep social divisions that have recently flared amid decades-old culture wars.

A busy interchange along the second ring road in Wuhan, China, in January.
A busy interchange along the second ring road in Wuhan, China, in January.Gilles Sabrie/NYT

As the Biden administration settles into office and presses forward with an agenda to address urgent domestic concerns such as curing COVID-19 and resuscitating the economy, it will eventually have to include another looming threat: the inexorable rise of China’s global influence. China’s increasing dominance has already marginalized Western influence in Asia, as events in Hong Kong over the past two years indicate; China’s more recent economic overtures to the European Union mark another clear shot across to bow to threaten America’s global influence.

While the knee-jerk US reaction to Chinese global expansionism might be to clamp down on trade terms with China or sanction it for its myriad human rights and environmental abuses, a more nuanced approach involving strengthening our own hand before striking out will probably prove more beneficial in the long term.

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The first step in reviving America’s global influence must include growing our economy by focusing on infrastructure development as the key driver of economic growth. Over the past 30 years, China has leapfrogged past the West in terms of its investments in its infrastructure. It revamped its roads, bridges, and transportation networks, installing thousands of miles of new highways and high-speed rail lines. It constructed modernized, efficient seaports and airports. America lags far behind, with its domestic infrastructure basically in tatters. President Biden has promised a nearly $2 billion investment in infrastructure — but that impetus might be too small and, given the thorny politics involved, arrive too late to take the best advantage of the current crisis. However, it may generate bipartisan support among Democrats and Republicans.

The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the United States a D+ on its most recent infrastructure report card, a dismal rating driven primarily by underinvestment in US electricity grid. According to the report card’s authors, if current trends continue, there is will be an investment gap of roughly $338 billion by 2039 in electricity infrastructure alone This underinvestment in infrastructure has caused increasing instances of rolling blackouts and outages in some states due to extreme weather conditions. It’s especially alarming now that many Americans are working from home and require a connection to the grid and Internet to power home offices, which in turn powers the nation’s economy. And as automakers transition to electric cars, there’s growing concern that the electricity grid may not have the capacity to meet the demand.

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But the essential question of whether we will dare ourselves to be great once again comes down to a matter of a shared vision and national purpose. We have seen over the past two decades a fraying of the social fabric — first along racial and gender lines and now, more broadly, along economic and political lines. We face the most egregious economic stratification on record and a disappearing political and income-based middle ground in politics.

Our domestic disunity and economic weakness are not going unnoticed abroad. While Europe has long griped about America’s “extraordinary privilege” in setting its own economic terms due to the dollar’s reserve currency status, that is changing. The post-World War II economic and military alliance between the United States and Europe has come under increasing strain. The fallout from Brexit as well as Donald Trump’s ham-handed attempts to renegotiate key terms of the NATO alliance have essentially freed the EU from American allegiance and opened the door to China’s diplomatic and trade overtures.

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Then, of course, there is China’s recent initiative to create a central bank digital currency, called the digital currency electronic payment system, in a move to eventually replace the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency. While China is quite a ways off from legitimizing DCEP on the world stage (as of now, the digital RMB settles roughly $19.4 billion in transaction volume daily compared to the United States’ SWIFT system’s roughly $5 trillion daily transaction volume), it is clearly moving in that direction. And gaining the EU as a major trading ally could substantially aid China’s grand ambitions. China’s DCEP, which can reduce costs and improve the efficiency associated with cross-border payments, provides a powerful incentive for countries under financial sanctions by the United States — such as Russia, Iran, and Venezuela — to increasingly settle their trade and investment transactions with China. A shift away from dollar-settled transactions could also provide an impetus for our EU allies, who desperately want to resume trade with resource-rich nations like Iran and Russia, to skirt the SWIFT system altogether. This would spell the end of dollar hegemony.

The increasing sense of alarm and distrust of leadership, of institutions and the media, are driving Americans into their respective corners, each believing the other is the enemy, while ignoring looming threats, both foreign and domestic. This has to stop. Americans must awaken to a shared sense of purpose and mutual obligation. The pettiness of playing state against state for illusory political advantage is worse than the ‘beggar thy neighbor’ politics employed between states and national central banks. It is almost as if we are willing to beggar ourselves. We are experiencing prime conditions — high unemployment, low-interest rates, and a clear fiscal mandate — to invest massively in our infrastructure. It would behoove us to galvanize enough national unity to pull it off.

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Shermichael Singleton is a former Republican political strategist who worked on the presidential campaigns of Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Ben Carson. He is a political analyst on MSNBC.