America vs China

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Escalating tensions between Washington and Beijing do not yet constitute a new cold war. But they signal an important shift in us policy. From the 1990s—orchestrating China’s entry into the wto, guaranteeing its dollar assets at the peak of the financial crisis—the emphasis had been on cooperation, if backed by military might. Today, Washington is threatening to ramp up a tariff war and instructing nato members to boycott the prc’s market-leading 5G technology. The Department of Justice has staged a spectacular international arraignment of a Chinese tech company’s chief executive for dealing with Iran. The latest us National Security Strategy statement classifies China, alongside Russia, as a ‘revisionist power’. America had hoped that integration into the international order would liberalize China, the nss document explained. Instead, the prc was trying to expand the reach of its ‘state-driven economic model’. It aimed to displace the us from the Western Pacific and reorder the region to suit itself. There was self-criticism, too. As solo superpower after the Cold War, Washington had been too complacent. ‘We assumed that our military superiority was guaranteed and that a democratic peace was inevitable. We believed that liberal-democratic enlargement and inclusion would fundamentally alter the nature of international relations and that competition would give way to peaceful cooperation.’ Instead, a new era of ‘great power competition’ has dawned, involving a systemic clash ‘between free and repressive visions of world order’.1

Though the tougher American stance has broad support across party lines, Wall Street is nervous. Robert Rubin told New York Times readers that China can’t simply be instructed to change its economic model, although it should recognize that some consequences of its system were unacceptable to the us. Martin Wolf explained in the Financial Times that the right path was to manage relations with a China that would be both ‘foe and friend’. But the liberal media has largely backed the new line. ‘International suspicion has as much to do with the nature of China’s system as with the company [Huawei] itself’, stated the Financial Times. ‘Trump has been right to press all the issues’, declared the nyt. The Economist agreed: ‘America needs to be strong’—‘Trump’s willingness to disrupt and offend can be effective.’2 A lead text in the latest number of Foreign Affairs dials up the charges. China is seeking ‘complete dominance’ in the Indo-Pacific region, where it aims to be the ‘unchallenged political, economic and military hegemon’. Beijing has been able to pick and choose in its relations with the us-designed institutions of the global order—the un, wto, World Bank—and has built support for itself in regions where the ushas been (relatively speaking) absent: Africa, Central Asia, Iran, Sudan, North Korea. It has been undermining the us alliance system in Asia—encouraging the Philippines to distance itself from Washington, supporting Seoul’s opening to Pyongyang, backing Japan against ustariffs. Though America should hope to maintain its Asian pre-eminence through ‘competitive but peaceful’ means, it should brace itself for the use of military force.3

How serious are these new great-power antagonisms, and what is their logic?

This is an extract from the introduction to New Left Review 115, Jan/Feb 2019. The full text can be read on the relaunched and updated New Left Review website.


1National Security Strategy of the United States of America, Washington, dc 2017, pp. 25, 27, 45–6. 

2 Editorial Board, ‘Huawei will struggle to assuage Western concerns’, ft, 28 January 2019; Editorial Board, ‘You don’t understand tariffs, man’, nyt, 4 December 2018; ‘China vs America’, Economist, 18 October 2018.

3 Oriana Skylar Mastro, ‘The Stealth Superpower: How China Hid Its Global Ambitions’, Foreign Affairs, Jan–Feb 2019.