Climate Change. War. Poverty. How the U.S.-China Relationship Will Shape Humanity’s Path.

A call for diplomacy and deescalation, not economic and military confrontation.

Calvin Cheung-Miaw and Max Elbaum March 21, 2019

Twilight over Chicago. (Getty)

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.

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.

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 unthink­ablethink­able.” 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. 

Calvin Che­ung-Miaw is with the Left Inside/​Outside Project, and an edi­tor of Orga­niz­ing Upgrade. Max Elbaum is author of Rev­o­lu­tion in the Air, recent­ly reis­sued by Ver­so Books, and an edi­tor of Orga­niz­ing Upgrade.
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