Even as the current US administration angles towards starting a new cold war with China, the consequences of such escalation can be severe; writes Carlos Martinez
Since Richard Nixon's 1972 visit to Beijing, the trajectory of US-China relations had been towards greater levels of cooperation and economic integration, even if these masked deep underlying contradictions and the ever-present possibility of confrontation. However, over the course of the last few years, we've witnessed a significant shift in US foreign policy with respect to China.
In 2011, the Obama administration announced its 'pivot to Asia,' in which it aimed to shift its focus away from bombing the Middle East and towards "advancing American interests" in the Pacific. Everyone understood that this meant making China containment the unambiguous central plank of US foreign policy. But even the pivot had its contradictions.
On the one hand, the US established a marine base in Darwin (North Australia), ramped up its naval presence in the South China Sea, and offered China's neighbours a significant economic incentive — in the form of the Trans-Pacific Partnership — to join in the efforts to prevent China's emergence as the pre-eminent regional power in Asia. On the other hand, US-China diplomatic cooperation achieved a milestone with the negotiations surrounding the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015.
Donald Trump came to power with a promise to stop China "raping" the US economy, and his administration has adopted an aggressively anti-China stance. Influential members of his top team include (or have included) such fanatical China hawks as Mike Pompeo, John Bolton, Stephen Bannon, Robert Lighthizer, and Peter Navarro.
The US side kicked off the current trade war in January 2018, with tariffs on solar panels (a move that highlighted both Trump's climate-change denialism and economic illiteracy). In 2019, the US administration imposed a ban on Huawei and started to put pressure on its 'Five Eyes' and European allies to do the same, on the basis of outlandish and easily discredited accusations that Huawei was using its hardware to spy on behalf of the Chinese Government.
Now in 2020, Trump and his team have settled on anti-China racism as the perfect get-out-of-jail-free card in order to justify the US's horrifying mismanagement of the Coronavirus pandemic. Connected with all this are the disinformation campaign around Xinjiang, the attack on TikTok and WeChat, and the ever-louder calls for an economic 'decoupling' that would be far more damaging to the US economy than the Chinese.
On top of all this is a military escalation that includes ever more frequent US naval operations in the South China Sea, vastly increased weapons sales to Taiwan, encouraging Japan's rearmament, the deployment of the THAAD anti-ballistic missile defence system in South Korea and Guam, and the bulking up of the Indo-Pacific Command.
It's not difficult to see the parallels between the current escalation and the 'Cold War' waged by the US against the Soviet Union and its allies. Indeed, the basic political dynamics are the same. Mainstream history paints the cold war as an extended geostrategic battle between two superpowers struggling to extend their influence throughout the world.
In fact, the Soviets didn't use the term 'Cold War.' They didn't see it as a battle between superpowers; they considered that they were defending their right, and the right of other countries, to pursue a model of development other than the one prescribed by the US, to develop in a way that wasn't directly aimed at producing economic and political benefit for U.S.-led Western capitalism.
As Vladimir Shubin, former head of the African section of the International Department of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union put it: "For us, the global struggle was not a battle between the two 'superpowers' assisted by their 'satellites' and 'proxies,' but a united fight of the world's progressive forces against imperialism."
If the Soviets and their allies were fighting for different countries' right to develop on their own terms and according to their own plans, the US and its allies were fighting for the opposite: to prevent the creation of new paths of development outside a system of imperialism. President Harry S Truman was explicit about this when he said, in 1947, that "we can survive only if the whole world adopts the American system." With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Cold War came to an end and a new era — the notorious 'End of History' — came into being. It was an era of extreme neoliberalism, yawning inequality, structural adjustment and reckless militarism.
Thankfully, the high tide of US hegemony has run its course, the main reason being the rise of China. Now, China is the second-largest economy in the world in GDP terms and will overtake the US within the next few years. Furthermore, it's emerging as a science and technology powerhouse in its own right, resolutely moving beyond its Washington-assigned status as a cheap manufacturing base.
Meanwhile, China is increasingly willing to speak out at the UN and other forums against hegemony — for example, using its veto multiple times along with Russia to prevent UN Security Council military action against Syria. The Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, among other projects, indicate China's growing importance in global affairs, particularly in terms of encouraging development in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
The rise of China, while posing no threat whatsoever to ordinary people in the West, constitutes a genuine threat to the uncontested domination desired by the US ruling class, and this is the key dynamic driving the new cold war. Working-class, oppressed, and progressive people throughout the world must do everything they can to prevent a potentially disastrous new cold war.
The most important reason is that we are all the same species, sharing the same planet, sharing the same natural resources, and facing many of the same problems. In an increasingly connected world, these problems can't be solved in the context of escalating tensions, relentless propaganda, diplomatic hostility, and the threat of military conflict. The pandemic is a good example. The virus thrives by infecting as many people as possible. And the only way for humanity to handle the virus is to prevent it from infecting people, and ultimately to eradicate it.
A new cold war will bring no benefit to ordinary people in the West. It will mean fewer jobs, reduced investment, reduced export markets, and increased prices on imports. All this will be accompanied by rising anti-Asian racism and a renewed momentum along the ideological dead-ends of empire nostalgia and white supremacy.
In the interests of peace and progress, we must push for a de-escalation of tensions, and for respectful, friendly, and mutually beneficial relations between the West and China.
Views expressed are personal