End of empire

Published: Sunday, January 2, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 1, 2005 at 11:46 p.m.
In the 1980s, when he was a distinguished professor of economic history at the University of Florida, William Woodruff liked to tell the story of the great fleets of discovery launched by China's Ming dynasty at the dawn of the 15th century.
The Ming ships were crisscrossing the Indian Ocean 50 years before Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of South Africa and put Europe into the world conquest business.
"These expeditions each comprised some 60 large vessels (up to 440 feet long), about 250 smaller vessels and a crew of 28,000 men," Woodruff recounted in a lecture series he delivered in 1987 titled "The Struggle for World Power."
The Ming expeditions ranged as far as Arabia and Africa, where crew members rounded up giraffes and other exotic species for the emperor's private collection.
After which they "returned home to continue their traditional policy of isolation."
"They had sought neither conquest nor trade," Woodruff observed. "No overseas territory was acquired; no colonies established. The naval expeditions were never resumed. Having satisfied their curiosity they returned to China and shut their door.
"One can only speculate what might have happened had the Chinese still been in the Indian Ocean when da Gama rounded the Cape."
Woodruff researched and delivered those lectures at a time when the world still revolved around the U.S.-Soviet Cold War. But he was already insisting that "the Capitalist-Communist debate has lost whatever relevance it had."
The next century, Woodruff argued, will be shaped by far different political, economic and cultural forces.
"There is a shift in the center of gravity of world power towards Asia - be it military, economic or spiritual power," he predicted, "We need to realize that our children will probably live in a very different world than the one in which we live - one in which they will have to live increasingly on Asia's terms."
Talk about being right on the money.
Woodruff made that observation nearly two decades ago. As the higher education reporter for The Sun, I'd frequently had occasion to talk to him about global trends. It was always an enlightening, and rather unsettling, experience.
The American century is drawing to a close, he used to tell me. The next century will be China's.
Well, here we are, five years into the new century, and China's door is wide open. China has gone back to Africa, not to collect giraffes, but trade agreements.
We like to keep assuring ourselves that America is the world's only remaining "superpower." But these days we're pretty much squandering our vast military prowess, delivering democracy at the point of a gun in Iraq (and, not coincidentally, keeping open the Middle East oil pipelines to sate our guzzling sport utility vehicles).
And while we trade American blood for Mideast oil, China is negotiating an ambitious deal with Canada to tap into North America's largest oil reserves to help fuel the most ambitious modernization and industrialization revolution in human history.
Hey, does anybody remember Latin America? You know, that huge land mass somewhere south of Key West?
Last year the Bush administration's Latin policy pretty much consisted of plotting to engineer the ouster of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
This week, Chavez returned the favor when he agreed to let China develop 15 oil fields and build new refineries in his country.
Reported The New York Times, "Chavez praised the agreements as an opportunity to reduce his country's dependence on oil sales to the United States."
I'm a child of the Cold War. And growing up I always thought of China as that "other" communist country - the one with fewer nuclear weapons than Russia but a lot more people (1.2 billion and counting).
But in the end, the Soviet empire's awesome nuclear arsenal couldn't save it from Ronald Reagan's "dustbin of history." And looking back, the really astounding thing to me about "communist" China's ascendancy is that it is occurring, not at the point of a bayonet, but on the sheer strength of its economic clout and capitalistic spirit.
Nikita Kruschev once bragged that the Soviet Union would sell us the rope with which we would ultimately hang ourselves. China is simply selling us the rope.
Does it bother anybody else that while we're buying cheap Chinese goods from Wal-Mart, the Chinese are using our dollars to buy up our national debt? I mean, what's that all about?
We're financing the war in Iraq on IOUs, and China is picking up our markers. What does that portend for our children's' future?
Here's another telling trend: America has for decades been the world's leading exporter of intellectual capital. That's because the doors of our great colleges and universities have always been open to students from around the world.
But since 9-11, political paranoia and bureaucratic red tape have conspired to considerably reduce the flow of foreign students - and the money they bring with them - to the University of Florida and other American institutions of higher learning.
Is that a problem? Not unless you think that winning the hearts and minds of the world's future business and political leaders is important to America's national security. Not unless you worry about polls from abroad that show American prestige and influence continuing to drop around the world.
Here's an interesting item from the Nov. 18 New York Times: "Last year, 2,563 Indonesian students received visas to go to China for study. ... By comparison, only 1,333 Indonesian students received visas for study in the United States ... a precipitous drop from the 6,250 student visas (the U.S.) issued in 2000 and part of a worldwide decline after 9-11."
"'You are losing ground, that's a fact of life,' Tanun Anumanrajadhon, a professor of international affairs in Thailand, told The Times. 'People here are talking of China and economics. People don't care about democracy now.'"
Now it is the United States that is growing insular, that threatens to seal its doors for fear of religious fundamentalist-sponsored terrorism.
Meanwhile, China is making business deals with Australia, wrapping up trade agreements with virtually every country in Latin America and negotiating for Canada's energy reserves.
There is something oddly familiar about this scenario.
In an earlier century, when Spain, England and France were slowly crumbling under the burdens of empire, shrewd Yankee traders were fanning out across the globe and striking deals that would help make America the economic envy of the world.
Those early experiments in "economic globalization" would help finance America's own evolution into superpower status.
How ironic it will be if the end of empire for America is, in turn, hastened by the world's new Yankee traders, those descendants of the curious but unambitious voyagers who ventured out to to distant shores, collected a few giraffes and then abruptly slammed the door shut behind them.
"Today every aspect of American economic life is being affected by the Japanese," Woodruff wrote in 1987. "If China's hopes of rapid industrialization should also materialize, there is no telling what might happen."
No telling. Perhaps in a generation or two, anxious American students will even be competing for coveted visas to attend the great colleges and universities of China - the new gateways of opportunity in a century that no longer revolves around American might and influence.
Ron Cunningham is editorial page editor for The Sun.

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