America and China Can Work It Out

Tensions between America and China are as predictable as they are, well, stupid.

Their tensions are predictable for two reasons:

  • The United States and China are rival world powers, vying with each other for status and influence in the world.
  • Some of their economic conflicts are zero-sum games. If one side wins, the other loses.

Stop acting like chimpanzees

The first reason amounts to a chimpanzee-level dispute: Who’s going to be the alpha chimp in the neighborhood? It’s a real factor that’s hard-wired into human nature. We ignore it at our peril, but it’s still stupid.

The Chinese — meaning the Han, who make up 91.6 percent of China’s population — are a distinct ethnic group. Like almost1 all such groups, they are inclined by evolution to help other members of their group and to oppose non-members.2

Non-members include not only Americans, but the 50 or so minority groups in China. To the Chinese, we are the outsiders to be opposed. Conversely, we perceive the Chinese as the outsiders to be opposed.

Group bias is a well-known problem in human relations. Intelligent people should be able to work around it. Human history is not encouraging, but we should at least try.

Resolve zero-sum games for mutual benefit

The second reason is rationally defensible but not insoluble. China has gained economically at America’s expense.3

Advocates of unlimited international trade often argue that we give China dollars and they give us consumer goods, so we are the winners of the exchange. They get paper and we get actual stuff. But after we pay China for all the stuff we buy, China uses the money to buy up American companies and productive resources. We’ve been selling long-run control over our country for short-run enjoyment of cheap consumer goods. That’s unsustainable.

It’s not hopeless

I don’t claim to be a China expert, but I know a little. I read their media and watch their television shows. I meet twice weekly on Skype with a language tutor who lives in China. We don’t talk about politics, but the Chinese are proud of their country and their people.

They don’t hate America, but they think that China is better than America and they intend to beat us. They’ll take the best deal they can get from us and then try to get a little more. In competition, that’s perfectly normal. We need to be just as competitive as they are. It’s in China’s best interests to get along with us, and our best interests to get along with them.

Mutually beneficial compromise is at least possible. Even if we’ve all got a little bit of crazy, we can act rationally if we try. It can be done.


  1. It’s very unusual for groups to hate their own people and their own country. As Zach Goldberg observed in Tablet Magazine, “white liberals [are] the only demographic group in America to display a pro-outgroup bias — meaning that among all the different groups surveyed, white liberals were the only one that expressed a preference for other racial and ethnic communities above their own.”
  2. America had a similar advantage until 1965, when it had an 88 percent majority of highly assimilated European-Americans. The 1965 Immigration Act changed things by encouraging immigration of unassimilable people from incompatible cultures.
  3. As developed by economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo, the idea that “free trade” is always mutually beneficial has several flaws. First, it assumed that trade was only between countries with similar cultures and legal systems. Second, it assumed that capital investment would not move between countries, so companies would not “offshore” jobs and production. Ricardo, who identified comparative advantage, explicitly stated that assumption. Third, it did not consider how trade would affect inequality within the trading countries. In the United States, it has enriched the richest people and (in relative terms) lowered the incomes of everyone else.

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About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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