The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China is taking aim at the key to America’s dominant role in the world

Infrastructure is key to American dominance and China wants to build the next generation of it

Workers labor at the construction site for the Meizhou Bay cross-sea bridge, a part of the Fuzhou-Xiamen high-speed railway project, in Putian, China. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg News)
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The China Standards 2035 plan demonstrates Beijing’s goal to write the global rules by which critical 21st century technologies will operate — including 5G telecommunications, the “Internet of things,” electricity transmission and artificial intelligence. A report by the China Strategy Group headed by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and composed of Silicon Valley tech experts and China specialists, confirms that this is China’s plan.

These moves show China’s determination to control what historians call “the infrastructure of empire,” the latticework that enables the international system to function. The world is slowly awakening to this fact. The United States and the European Union have both expressed concern over China’s moves, especially Huawei’s 5G network. Yet, the recent E.U. trade agreement with China indicates that there remain significant differences of opinion over perceptions of the Chinese threat. Lessons from America’s past demonstrate that U.S. officials are right to worry about how China’s moves will affect U.S. power. As the British taught the Americans over a century ago, whoever controls the infrastructure of empire runs the world.

History’s most celebrated imperial infrastructure remains the sprawling ancient network of Roman roads that bound the far corners of the Mediterranean into a unified empire. For nearly 500 years, the Roman road network — stretching tens of thousands of miles in totality — connected every province of the empire, enabling economic trade to reach levels previously unimaginable. It also allowed the Roman army to rapidly respond to military threats across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

At the turn of the 20th century, Great Britain created the first modern global economic system, giving it control of trade, finance, telecommunications and travel. From 1815 to 1914, London had established a vast network of ports, harbors and military installations enabling the world’s maritime commerce to cross the Earth’s oceans, as well as controlling key naval “choke points” — narrow passages in strategically vital locations — enabling the Royal Navy to restrict global commerce at its whim. This network soon included the first worldwide communications platform, what the British called their “All Red Line,” i.e., submarine telegraph cables connecting London with its far-flung empire that by 1914 would carry 80 percent of all telegraph traffic.

By the early 20th century, Britain’s shipping lines would carry 50 percent of the world’s trade, while London accounted for 75 percent of the world’s global financial transactions. Britain’s greatest trump card, however, was its possession of Welsh anthracite, the world’s finest grade coal; by World War I, nearly 80 percent of global maritime traffic relied on British coal.

Without access to Britain’s imperial infrastructure, the world’s rising powers faced insurmountable obstacles in trying to expand their global influence. The United States learned this painful lesson during two key moments in the nation’s rise to power.

In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the Navy’s 16 newest battleships to undertake a two-year global tour to demonstrate America’s emergence as a great power. However, the U.S. Navy didn’t have the capability to supply the fleet with coal over such vast distances and instead had to rely on British colliers, ships specially designed to transport coal. Disruptions in the British supply brought the tour to a grinding halt in Australia and convinced the fleet’s commander, Adm. Charles Sperry, that the British were trying to make the American fleet “the laughingstock of the world.” Eventually, Sperry persuaded Australian coal suppliers to provide the fleet enough coal to travel to the U.S. port at Manila Bay.

The lesson had been learned. The Navy understood that the fleet’s dependence on British coal would prevent it from projecting power in Europe or Asia in the future without first gaining London’s approval. As the naval historian John Maurer writes: “Without access to her coaling stations, Britain’s rivals found that problems of fuel supply could drastically limit the range of their naval operations, especially in distant waters,” prompting Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II to mockingly remark: “If not have got coal, how can do?” Consequently, the Navy began the switch to oil, of which the U.S. had domestic sources to exploit.

Washington was similarly exasperated during World War I when Britain used its control over international communications to limit news about the war as well as day-to-day economic information. Britain rejected all coded transmissions from American businesses, forcing them to accept far greater costs of sending uncoded messages and the risk that British censors would either delay or fail to transmit them. Furthermore, the British severed all German cable lines that American business relied on to communicate with Central Europe, while also endangering communications with the Philippines and China.

This convinced President Woodrow Wilson that global communications should be placed under the control of his new proposed League of Nations. Failing that, these incidents persuaded Washington that the United States must build its own global infrastructure if it were to become a true great-power rival to Britain.

Like Rome’s before it, Britain’s imperial infrastructure eventually collapsed, a victim of World War II, allowing the United States to create a new global network to win the war and rebuild the world. The postwar liberal international order the United States created centered on a system of free trade and expanded global finance based on the strength of the U.S. dollar and protected by American military power based around the world. American telecommunication lines played a leading role in the modernization of global communications, which, like the British before it, gave the U.S. the ability to monitor international traffic. This gave the United States significant advantages in its economic competition with its European and Japanese allies and to outpace its far more serious rivalry with the Soviet Union.

The Chinese are determined to seize those advantages from the United States. Indeed, it is by commanding the global infrastructure in trade, finance and technology that China hopes to supplant the U.S. as the global leader. Currently, Estonia and Finland are warning of the Chinese threat to their national infrastructure while some in Britain claim that in a future crisis, China could literally turn off Britain’s lights. These only add to existing concerns over China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

China faces a steep challenge in trying to usurp the American system. It took the destruction of a world war for the United States to replace Britain’s global infrastructure. Absent a comparable war, the same problem exists for China today. The Belt and Road initiative has produced mixed results and its telecommunications infrastructure has become a center of controversy, especially Huawei’s new 5G network, which many countries believe poses significant security risks. Nevertheless, the Chinese have already demonstrated the ability to weaken America’s hold on the global infrastructure, posing a significant challenge to the United States for the remainder of the century.