More than any other bilateral relationship, what happens between the United States and China will shape global politics and human civilization in the 21st century. The success of efforts to combat climate change, avoid a humanity-threatening war and build democratic, working-class movements in both countries largely hinges on how Beijing and Washington manage their differences amid big changes in the map of global power.
Right now, things are not looking good. Donald Trump’s bellicose anti-China rhetoric and trade war threats are only the most headline-grabbing manifestations of a dangerous underlying trend. Observers across the spectrum of mainstream politics note rising tensions: The Los Angeles Times reported in December that U.S. policy toward China has shifted “from engagement to confrontation,” and The Diplomat noted in January that that Washington’s “new consensus” is for “strategic competition” with Beijing. The opening sentence of the Worldwide Threat Assessment issued by U.S. Intelligence Agencies January 29 names “China and Russia” (in that order) as the most prominent source of “threats to U.S. national security.” Michael Klare, long-time left analyst of world affairs and professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, argued in February that “for all intents and purposes, the U.S. and China are already at war with one another.”
Why is this happening? And what can U.S. peace and justice activists do to push the U.S.-China relationship in a different direction? Below we explore these questions in hopes of sparking more debate within the left. We offer these thoughts not as “China experts,” which we are not, but as anti-racist and anti-militarist activists who believe it is urgent to demand that diplomacy replace economic and military confrontation in U.S.-China relations, with the ultimate aim of forging the international partnership necessary to take effective action against catastrophic climate change.
U.S. global hegemony and China’s rise
Two key factors underlie the twists and turns that have bought U.S.-China relations to their current fraught state.
The first is China’s dramatic economic growth and steadily heightened technological and military capacity since its turn toward “reform and modernization” in the post-Mao era. China is now the second largest economy in the world and, by some measures, is predicted to surpass the United States as number one in 10 to 20 years.
The second is the determination by U.S. capital to maintain its global hegemony by any means necessary even as its relative weight in an increasingly multi-polar global economy declines. We saw this expressed in the “pivot to Asia” policy under President Barack Obama, in response to China’s rise as the most powerful “peer competitor” to the United States since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Beijing’s struggle to control economic development
Back in the late 1970s, Washington took a positive stance toward China’s new economic policies, and was thrilled that Beijing signed on to its Cold War crusade against the USSR. U.S. capitalists participated deeply in China’s post-Mao economic reforms, particularly after the nature of those reforms changed in the 1990s. As Carl Walter and Fraser Howie describe in Red Capitalism, the Chinese Communist Party sought in that decade to remake the state-owned enterprises that anchored China’s non-rural economy. U.S. investment banks helped restructure those enterprises so that they functioned more like corporations that could compete in international markets. China also rapidly developed export industries based largely in the “special economic zones” open to overseas investment beginning in the 1980s. Those industries found a market in the United States, where neoliberal economic policy was — with a few years’ exception — producing wage stagnation and a corresponding appetite for low-priced goods.
Not coincidentally, by the 1990s, U.S. elites largely supported the strategy of constructive engagement with China. In 2000, the Clinton administration gave China ‘Most Favored Nation’ status and supported its entry into the World Trade Organization. The then-dominant view within the U.S. capitalist class was that China’s moves toward economic liberalization would necessarily bring political liberalization and incorporation of China into a U.S.-led economic and geopolitical order.
Although U.S. capitalists unquestionably benefited from China’s economic reforms — think, for instance, of the profits reaped by Apple — the Chinese government was able to set several conditions on overseas investment. The huge size of the Chinese market and the grip of the Communist Party on economic policy gave China almost unique leverage in dealing with foreign capital. Writing for Foreign Policy in August 2018, Jake Werner pointed out that China’s alleged “cheating” is more accurately characterized as using its considerable muscle in a U.S.-dominated global economy that is at bottom a “rigged game”:
The huge and rapidly growing China market convinced major foreign corporations to invest on terms negotiated with the state rather than unilaterally imposing their own conditions, as they did with manufacturing in Latin America or extractive industries in Africa. Most prominently, China required foreign corporations entering the domestic market to participate in joint ventures with Chinese companies, which allowed domestic firms to learn the managerial and technological practices of the developed world. China also established regulations that secure favorable terms for Chinese enterprises licensing the technologies of foreign firms.
While the issues of trade balances and tariffs get media attention, U.S. elites’ economic grievances against China are largely based on Beijing’s continued restrictions on international capital, as highlighted by Werner. This has influenced the leadership of both Democratic and Republican parties, who apparently are preparing to criticize an anticipated settlement of the trade war as too soft, because it does not eliminate Chinese regulations.
All of this comes on top of U.S. capitalists’ unease about the possibility that Chinese companies will outpace the United States in technological innovation. Huawei has been in the spotlight recently because the United States pressed Canada to arrest one of its executives on charges that the company deceived U.S. banks into violating sanctions on Iran. But this is largely a pretext. Huawei is mainly a source of concern because it has been at the forefront of 5G wireless communications, which is widely seen as crucial to the development of new artificial intelligence technology and the military innovations that will depend on it.
China has indeed integrated into the global economy, but it has managed to do so on its own terms as much as those set by the United States Rather than becoming increasingly subordinate to Washington, Beijing has been able to maintain considerable independence and economic initiative.
China flexes its geopolitical muscle
As China’s economic clout has increased, its capacity to take political initiative and develop its military strength has grown as well. Over the last decade especially, Beijing has increasingly flexed its muscle on the regional and international stage.
In Southeast Asia, this has been clearest in the long-simmering tensions over the South China Sea, which some term the West Philippine Sea. Several countries, including the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, oppose China’s claim of sovereignty over the strategically crucial and oil-rich waterway. The Philippines brought its case before an international tribunal at the Hague and secured a favorable verdict, but China refused to participate in the proceedings and has rejected the ruling. In the meantime, China has upped its military presence in the disputed area. It has constructed new airstrips and military installations, sometimes accomplishing this by enlarging the size of islands it controls and creating entirely new islands. The United States, for its part, has conducted provocative naval maneuvers both in the South China Sea and in the Strait of Taiwan. Here, the postwar U.S. view of the Pacific as the American Lake collides with China’s determination to control a location that could — if push comes to shove — serve as a strategic chokepoint for China’s energy imports.
Globally, China has spearheaded the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a massive infrastructure development project encompassing 70 countries. The goal is to create six different “economic corridors” that would integrate economies across Europe, Africa, and Asia with each other and, of course, with China. The scope of this initiative is so vast that some have compared it to the Marshall Plan, which funded the reconstruction of Western Europe after World War II, but on a global scale. The physical environment of the world will be utterly transformed, as the BRI finances “bridges, railways, pipelines, hydroelectric dams, highways, power grids” on a massive scale. Crucially, the key financial drivers of the BRI are Chinese-led and multilateral banks that are not dominated by the United States, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the BRICS New Development Bank. In Latin America, Chinese banks have provided $140 billion dollars in loans in the last decade. As the BRI looks to expand to Latin America, we can expect ever-deeper connection between the Latin American and Chinese economies.
Like any economic initiative on this scale, the BRI has big geopolitical implications. Presently, China’s economy depends on the U.S. consumers. This is one reason some scholars feel China is ultimately hemmed into a U.S.-led economic and political order. The BRI will allow China to dramatically reduce its dependence on the U.S. consumer market. Simultaneously, it gives other smaller and weaker countries more leverage in dealings with Western capital: They now have an alternative direction to turn for investment and trade, even as many grapple with concerns about negative effects of a large Chinese presence in their economies. These two developments represent a growing threat to U.S. dominance: China not only weakens a main source of Washington’s current leverage over its policies but gains the potential to anchor an alignment of many countries in counter-balancing U.S. power.
Washington’s goal of “overmatch”
During the post‑9/11 years, Washington was preoccupied with the so-called “War on Terror” and its disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. When the U.S. foreign policy and military establishment came up for air to take stock under Obama, their consensus was they were behind the curve in assessing where the most serious threat to U.S. global hegemony really lay. The result was Washington’s “pivot to Asia” and, more recently, the explicit turn in China policy from a engagement to confrontation. Michael Klare describes the result:
Even before Donald Trump entered the Oval Office, the U.S. military and other branches of government were already gearing up for a long-term quasi-war, involving both growing economic and diplomatic pressure on China and a buildup of military forces along that country’s periphery. Since his arrival, such initiatives have escalated into Cold War-style combat by another name with his administration committed to defeating China in a struggle for global economic, technological, and military supremacy.
As it wages this struggle, Washington has some powerful weapons to deploy. A key one is its economic ace card: the special status of the U.S. dollar in the world economy. But this status is thoroughly interwoven with U.S. military might. The combination is aptly described by Ho-fung Hung in The China Boom:
Although the U.S. share of the global economy and its political influence around the world have been dwindling since the 1970s, its residual geopolitical dominance has been sustained by the continuous hegemonic status of the U.S. dollar in the international monetary system. This continuing status enables the United States to borrow internationally at low interest rates so that Americans are able not only to live but also to fight beyond their means. The perpetuation of the dollar’s hegemony since the abolition of the gold standard in 1971 has been supported by the U.S. military’s global supremacy.
Concerning military supremacy, the Trump administration makes no secret of its fundamental goal. The first comprehensive statement of the administration’s doctrine, the National Security Strategy document released in December 2017, gave it a catch-phrase title: “overmatch,” defined as overwhelming capabilities “in sufficient scale to prevent enemy success and to ensure America’s sons and daughters will never be in a fair fight.”
“Overmatch” is already more than words on paper. In January, the first in a new generation of U.S. nuclear weapons rolled off the assembly line. As James Carroll wrote in February for The Nation, “Fulfilling the Trump administration’s quest for nuclear-war-fighting ‘flexibility,’ it isn’t designed as a deterrent against another country launching its nukes; it’s designed to be used. This is the weapon that could make the previously ‘unthinkable’ thinkable.” Washington is simultaneously upping its cyberwarfare capacities. Although the cyber-conflict with Russia gets more headlines, it’s noteworthy that Vice President Mike Pence declared last October, “What the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what China is doing.” In the proposed budget Trump sent to Congress last week, he called for a 5 percent increase in military spending — even more than the Pentagon had requested — while demanding big cuts in domestic programs like education and environmental protection.
Dangers and prospects
To say all this is dangerous is an understatement. The costs of a ramped-up trade war would fall hardest on the working classes in both U.S. and China — and if it leads to a global downturn, on workers and the poor across the globe. Calls to “get tough on China” are, at bottom, ways of shifting blame for people’s economic woes away from the U.S. corporate elite. As Tobita Chow explained in July for In These Times, they tap into and reinforce the anti-Chinese racism long present in U.S. politics and marginalize even the idea of solidarity between workers in both countries. And the multi-front Cold War described by Michael Klare means constant tension, with the very real danger that an initially small flashpoint conflict could escalate into full-scale, even nuclear, war. Short of short open conflict, constant tension between Washington and Beijing increases the influence of nationalism, militarism and authoritarianism in both countries, which almost inevitably translates into increases in domestic repression of popular movements, as well as austerity.
What does all this mean for the left? There are important debates on the nature of China’s social system and the impact of its geopolitical and global economic strategies. But regardless of one’s position in those debates, the U.S. left has a critical role to play in galvanizing opposition to the growing clamor for confrontation in U.S.-China relations. We can do this. But we need a vision and practice that speaks to both humanity’s common interest in sheer survival and the global working class’ interest in a just and non-exploitative society.
We should prioritize the fight for a 180-degree turnaround in the U.S. stance toward China, demanding that diplomacy and negotiation replace trade wars and military encirclement. We should call for a switch from the goal of “containing China” to the goal of forging a U.S. China partnership that would take common action against climate change and support a global campaign to address extreme poverty worldwide. This China-focused effort would be one component of a campaign to de-escalate all global conflicts, and turn to diplomacy over military force. Such a campaign should push the U.S. government to abandon pursuit of hegemony in favor or acceptance of the fact that we all live in a multi-polar world where, as Martin Luther King declared in 1983, “We must learn to live together as brothers [sic] or perish together as fools.”
Making progress on this front will be a challenge, not least because of the barrage of punditry and dominant media framing about China, which focuses exclusively on (often legitimate) grievances and problems — and presents a one-sided picture of a complex society. On top of this, the Trump-dominated GOP and anti-China Democrats are the ones with the most clout on U.S.-China relations.
Despite these obstacles, there is a basis for building a broad-front campaign to redirect U.S.-China relations for the sake of the planet and its inhabitants. Such a campaign’s demands would be consistent with the principle of the Green New Deal on a global scale, would recognize that the United States and China are the world’s largest emitters of carbon dioxide — China due to the size of its population, the United States due to its per-capita pollution levels. A successful international effort to avert catastrophic climate change depends on joint action by the two countries.
Within all working-class and social justice movements, it’s vital to bring internationalism and anti-racism to the fore and stress how a decrease in tensions between states sets more favorable conditions for democratic rights struggles and working-class movements in all countries. An important part of this effort is forging direct ties between workers in the United States and those in China, as well as other countries. The last few years have seen a crackdown on independent labor organizing under Xi Jinping and fewer chances for international worker-to-worker interaction. But their common interests remain: Both U.S. and Chinese workers confront many of the same transnationals. And because Beijing’s crackdown is directly connected to greater tensions with Washington and fears that the United States will try to take advantage of protests in China to undermine the Chinese government — as the United States has done in so many other countries — fighting to reduce U.S.-China tensions will ultimately benefit Chinese workers.
Gaining ground here is obviously a difficult process. But in the context of a surging resistance to Trumpism that includes newly combative layers of workers and a growing socialist contingent, possibilities exist that were unimaginable even five years ago.
We don’t have time to waste. Towards the end of the U.S.-USSR Cold War, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev called for “a new way of thinking” whereby all countries, despite major ideological and political differences, would recognize that our collective security was imperiled by the threat of nuclear war, environmental devastation and violence produced by the extreme impoverishment of hundreds of millions of people. Gorbachev’s call for common action against those threats was overwhelmed by the failure of his attempt to restructure Soviet society, as well as by the wave of capitalist triumphalism and U.S. aggression following the Soviet collapse. But all those dangers remain. Indeed, we are 30 years further down the road toward climate catastrophe, global inequality is greater than it was in the 1980s, and Washington is now producing nuclear weapons that are more likely to be used than ever. And this time, it is the U.S.-China relationship which will largely decide what path humanity takes.