Several years ago, during a trip to London, I visited the Royal Observatory at Greenwich where the prime meridian is located — the geographic reference line that divides east and west. At longitude zero, it marks the spot where Greenwich Mean Time begins.
During my visit I had an experience, perhaps more of a realization, that made me think differently about America and its future.
I briefly straddled the dividing line that bisects east and west, as many visitors do, hoping someone would come along and offer to take my photo. Suddenly, a sizeable group of Chinese teenagers, probably students, swarmed the area. Inadvertently, I have to believe, they pushed me to the side — back into the west — a couple of feet toward my home thousands of miles away in Alaska.
I immediately felt something palpable. They were young, bursting with energy and enthusiasm. I was older, and weary from a long tour the previous day. Their cameras snapped rapidly like firecrackers and seemed higher-tech than mine. At the specific spot where a measurement of time begins, they seemed to fully embody the future. I felt like the past.
That trip prompted me to look harder at where America, as a global power, stands in relation to China. It brought forth some disturbing thoughts. Are we lagging China in education, particularly in science and high-tech industries? Aren’t we dependent upon China for computers and telecommunications, life science technologies, electronics, computer-integrated manufacturing, aerospace, optical electronics and biotechnology?
How do we compare with China in robotics and artificial intelligence?
Here’s an eye-opener: About 80% of America’s pharmaceutical drug supply comes from China. And throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, China dominated the market for the manufacture of personal protective equipment, or PPE.
Our economic interdependence with China has assured some stability between the two economic powers. The situation reminds me of science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s series of books, “The Foundation,” where peace among galactic neighbors is maintained through economic interdependence.
But China has made overtures that it plans to become completely self-sufficient by 2025-2030. What was once an economic partner will quickly become a global rival, both economically and militarily. Some say a another “cold war” is imminent.
Decisive action: The U.S. Senate recently passed what is called an Innovation and Competition Act that would appropriate $200 billion toward scientific and technology innovation over the next five years. It has sent the legislation to the U.S. House.
It’s a good step that is sure to move forward. It dovetails with an infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden originally proposed that, polls indicate, was supported by upwards of 70% of Americans. It would have included a major emphasis on green technologies and education. But after endless partisan bickering, Biden’s legislation has been whittled down by the Senate to a skeleton of its original content, emphasizing physical infrastructure items such as bridges, roads, airports, etc. In my mind, that’s a rather outdated, 20th-century view of “infrastructure.”
We can take targeted, strategic, almost surgical steps to retain our leadership role in the world. But what the Biden administration originally proposed is what the country desperately needs: A big, over-arching program that not only rebuilds our country’s physical infrastructure, but also addresses the root causes of America’s festering issues — poverty, crime, inequality in education, underemployment, systemic racism.
Yes, the price tag is high. But what is the price of becoming subservient to a country like China?
We live in the west, but we need to face boldly toward the east, where the sun rises, from a position of strength. It came to me that day as I was shoved off the prime meridian by an exuberant group of young Chinese students.
A lifelong Alaskan, Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.
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