Listening to Harm de Blij (pronounced duh BLAY) discuss the rise of China is at once frightening and awe-inspiring. The country is simultaneously capable of great engineering feats and raping the environment, of amassing great military might and badly misjudging geopolitics, of supreme nationalism and abhorrent racism, said de Blij, a Boca Grande homeowner.
All of these characteristics combined make for a fascinating global rival de Blij projects will surpass U.S. supremacy as a super power within two decades. The latest de Blij exposition on the subject came Tuesday before a near-sellout crowd of about 200 at the Boca Grande Community Center in conjunction with the Friends of Boca Grande and as a benefit for the Florida Society of Geographers.
Here are excerpts of his hour-long talk.
A near-sellout crowd once again showed Tuesday morning for Harm de Blij's benefit talk for the Florida Society of Geographers on the growing Chinese “Promise and Peril on the Pacific Rim.”
Question: The growth of China as a superpower seems certain to eclipse the United States as the No. 1 economy in your view. Why are you so pessimistic?
Answer: If you could see how fast the rise of China is occurring, 2027 seems to be the year the Chinese economy will overtake the American economy. And it will be long before that before probably we've woken up some morning to find the Chinese are on the moon - and not to visit. They'll be there to establish a base. We are facing the existential challenge of our time.
Q: What can be done for America to avoid slipping to No. 2 in the world?
Harm de Blij at a glance
Residence: Boca Grande
Family: Married 34 years to wife, Bonnie with daughter and son.
Occupation: John Hannah professor at Michigan State University
Degrees: Ph.D NorthwesternUniversity, master's degree Northwestern, bachelor's degree University of Witwatersrand with six honorary degrees.
History: Seven years geography editor on ABC's "Good Morning America. In 1996 he joined NBC News as geography analyst. Writer and commentator for the original PBS Series "The Power of Place."
Author: More than 30 titles
Travel: More than 100 countries
Hobby: amateur violinist, Cubs fan.
Discovered Boca Grande: A Florida resident since 1964, de Blij moved to Boca Grande with his wife, Bonnie, 15 years ago. "I bought a village home at the Boca Grande Club," he said. "Bonnie loved it and I usually do what she says."
A: The answer is two things: Education, get U.S. students back in engineering schools, and secondly, better knowledge of the Chinese. The Chinese know a frightening amount about America and we have just a snippet of information about them.
Q: How worrisome is the North Korean display of enhanced nuclear capability this week?
A: It's a very serious situation. Do you realize they have ballistic missiles that can reach the United States? You would be much more concerned about their ballistic missile technology, perhaps, than their nuclear technology because it's hard still even for that country to deliver the weapons unexpectedly to a target. The far greater danger is the Iranians and probably the Pakistanis have helped the North Koreans and the North Koreans will further diffuse this nuclear technology. This will be by far the greatest peril on the Pacific Rim and the disappointing side of this is the Chinese simply don't seem to want to intervene. It's all happening right in their shadow.
Q: What rationale are the Chinese using to avoid confronting their North Korean neighbors?
A: I have talked with Chinese insiders and they say, "Well, we don't want the government to collapse and then we'll have millions of migrants desperate." They are a country with 1.38 billion people and they're worrying about 20 million North Koreans? Give me a break. What they are really saying to the United States is we love to see you twisting in the wind. It's your problem. The North Koreans aren't going to send these missiles to us. It's your problem and we're not going to help you. It's not very smart foreign policy but all it proves is large countries are capable of myopia on both sides of the Pacific.
Q: Where does China threaten U.S. economic interests the most?
A: Keeping ocean lanes open to shipping. It is critical to America's commercial position in the world. It is being challenged by China. Not yet effectively because Chinese naval power isn't what it is going to be. But when it is, the time will come when suddenly we'll wake up one morning and we'll be handcuffed and we'll not be able to stave off these kinds of threats.
Q: How does China view our stabilization efforts in neighboring Afghanistan?
A: The Chinese are delighted by our stabilization efforts in Afghanistan because they will be the beneficiaries of it. If you look at the map, Afghanistan is crucial. There is a corridor that borders China. Fortuitously for the Chinese, it's right next to the biggest city in the region, Kashi. There is a major copper mine just south of Kabul and an incredible situation prevails there: American troops are protecting Chinese miners digging out the copper. Talk about the world going crazy. There is a perfect example.