There is a certain irony in the US, which has distinguished itself in being unable to protect its citizens from the pandemic launching the New Cold War against China, which has been exemplary in its protection of its citizens. This is certain to have an effect on both US and international opinion, writes Valdai Club expert Radhika Desai.
Precisely a quarter century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States launched a New Cold War against Russia over Ukraine and Crimea. Now, amid the pandemic, it has launched yet another, a New Cold War, this time against China. Like the original Cold War, both of these are rooted in the US desire to open other economies to its commodities, capital and money and to punish countries that may have other plans.
Unlike the New Cold War against Russia, the latest New Cold War is being waged against a socialist economy, albeit a much reformed one, and is thus more similar to the original Cold War. However, in a key respect, the new Cold War is unlike the original one. The latter’s principal protagonists, the US and the USSR were comparably stable and powerful. Today, the US on a rapidly declining trajectory, losing not only international influence but suffering a grave domestic crisis of ungovernability amid a complex crisis consisting of public health and climate emergencies, economic crisis and historically unprecedented levels of political protest. China, on the other hand, remains on its decades-long rising trend, has dealt with the pandemic effectively and stably. The IMF projects that China will lead world growth coming out of the pandemic, while the advanced economies, including the US, will be a drag on it.
Many emphasised the pandemic context and the clear superiority of China’s response and tragic cost of US’s shambolic one as the essential background of the New Cold War against China. Amid widespread protests that began with the murder of Floyd George, speakers also recalled how Black leaders and intellectuals in the US had a history of solidarity with China. Muhammad Ali had famously explained why he refused to serve in Vietnam: ‘My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.’ The the spike in anti-Asian racism in the US and many other Western countries amid the pandemic was noted by many.
The speakers came from diverse perspectives, including some that were critical of China on Human Rights. However, all agreed that the US’s New Cold War on China was truly hypocritical. The US propaganda war against China, its closing down of numerous Confucius institutes, the FBI witch-hunt against Chinese people and the wild accusations about the origins of the novel coronavirus were all simply attempts to give the vast US Military Industrial complex an excuse for even bigger budgets. The US military budget of $740 billion, with an extra $20 billion for new weapons systems specifically directed against China, is many times China’s of $ 178 billion military budget. Despite such facts, the propaganda against China is, so far at least, working: two-thirds of US citizens have an unfavourable view of China, reminiscent of the vehemence of McCarthyism and the red scares of the original Cold War. Speakers emphasised that the message that China is not the enemy and that the world needs cooperation not war must go out. In this, many noted, the role of Black Lives Matter, the largest mass movement in US history, will be critical.
US imperialism against China is not new. When the Communist victory in the Civil War became clear in 1949, the question the US foreign policy establishment asked was ‘who lost China?’. This assumed, of course, that China was the US’s possession to keep or lost. Despite ferocious US pressure and threats and despite the Sino-Soviet split, the Chinese revolution held out and Nixon’s visit I 1972 signalled a shift in the US strategy of confrontation.
During the Reform era under Deng Xiaoping, the US saw new opportunities and, the US sought, particularly under the Clinton administration, closer relations, particularly economic, as part of a larger strategy to win China over to neoliberal capitalism. Things appeared to go swimmingly for a while as China joined the WTO, and supply chains linking the US and China, US imports from China and Chinese purchase of US treasury securities reached an all-time high in the mid-2000s and many spoke of the mutual dependence of the US and China, even coining the term ‘Chimerica’.
However, these relations were already beginning to weaken when the 2008 North Atlantic Financial Crisis revealed a very different reality. The neoliberal financialised US economy slowed even more than the sluggish growth of the 2000s while China, suffering only a sharp but short trade shock in late 2008, kept up robust growth, making up for lost US and Western opportunities first with a vast investment boom and then by increasing consumption.
Since 2008, there has been a discernible hardening of the US stance towards China, formalised in Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ and the US attempt to create the Trans Pacific Partnership with the express purpose of excluding China uniting other Asian economies with the US against it.
Recently, the pressure on China was ratcheted up with the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wangzhou and pressure from the US on her sister Anglo powers in the ‘Five Eyes’ surveillance cooperation to ban Huawei from supplying 5G infrastructure. With the TPP as originally planned having failed, the US is now trying, under the rhetoric of ‘free, fair and reciprocal trade’ to ally Australia, India and Japan with itself into a ‘Quad’ and roll back and isolate China from the rest of Asia and even trying to influence the Communist government of Nepal. The reality is, however, that China’s Belt and Road Initiative is investing $1.3 Trillion in the region, many times the US investment.
From the Chinese perspective, the situation is grave indeed and the risk of war is structurally high and made higher still by Trump’s instability and the likelihood that he will announce a diplomatic break with China. However, as many speakers pointed out, China is not retaliating in kind. On the contrary, China was attempting to open all channels of dialogue. Its leadership was acting with caution and wisdom to ensure that the US strategy of portraying China as its enemy did not succeed. Though some thought that this formed a contrast with Soviet behaviour after Churchill’s, they were forgetting the real history of the original Cold War which was also instigated by the US against a USSR which would have preferred more friendly relations. Indeed, some Sino-Russian mutual consultation on how Cold Wars, old and new, have been and can be handled would be useful.
There is a certain irony in the US, which has distinguished itself in being unable to protect its citizens from the pandemic launching the New Cold War against China, which has been exemplary in its protection of its citizens. This is certain to have an effect on both US and international opinion. Moreover, China’s wide extension of international cooperation against the pandemic to all countries, including the US will surely underline China’s message, that the enemy was not China but the novel coronavirus. Many of the US’s closest allies are also listening.
The key to understanding the New Cold War against China lies in continuing reversal of fortunes for imperialism in what I have called the geopolitical economy of capitalism. The capitalist world was formatively shaped by imperialism. However, after reaching its height on the eve of the First World War, it has been declining more or less continuously, barring a slight reversal here and there. The USSR made a, if not the, major contribution to this decline, both by standing up to capitalism and imperialism and through its support for decolonization and development around the world. Today, China’s challenge is inaugurating another, possibly terminal, phase of this process. Cold wars, previous and present, have been ways the West has used to stem this reversal of imperialism.
Two things are necessary to stop the more desperate and dangerous New Cold War against China: its deft management by China and her allies and progressive politics in the US and other countries. In the latter, movements such as No Cold War will play in indispensable role.