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‘Playing the China Card’ (Differently)

Above photo: Pompeo delivers speech on “Communist China and the Free World’s Future” at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, in Yorba Linda, California, July 23, 2020. State Department photo Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain.

Beginning in 1969 President Richard Nixon, guided by his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, fashioned a new policy toward China; what became known as “playing the China card.” It was motivated by a desire to push back and ultimately create regime change in the  Soviet Union. Cognizant of growing hostilities between the two large communist states, Nixon and Kissinger developed this plan to play one off against the other. Central to this policy was launching a diplomatic process that led to the1979 US formal diplomatic recognition of China. During the 1970s, the United States and China supported the same political allies in various parts of the world, Southern Africa and Southeast Asia for example. The split in the socialist world between the Soviet Union and China led ultimately to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the weakening of socialism, for a time, on the world stage. Thus, from a US imperial point of view “playing the China card” worked.

In a speech on Thursday, July 23 Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that the Nixon opening to China was a mistake. “We must admit a hard truth that should guide us in the years and decades to come: that if we want to have a free 21st century and not the Chinese century of which Xi Jinping dreams, the old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done. We must not continue it and we must not return to it.” (Edward Wong, Steven Lee Myers, “Officials Push U.S.-China Relations Toward Point of No Return,” The New York Times, July 25, 2020). If it is true that the Nixon/Kissinger foreign policy toward China did in fact facilitate the weakening of socialism as a world force, why is the Secretary of State now calling “playing the China card” a mistake?

The answer to this question, or more broadly why is United States foreign policy returning to a policy hostile to China, perhaps creating a “New Cold War,” has several parts. First, as Alfred McCoy has described (In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power, Haymarket Books, 2017), the United States, relatively speaking, is a declining power. As to economic growth, scientific and technological developments, productivity, and trade, the US, compared to China particularly, is experiencing stagnation or decline. China has engaged in massive global projects in transportation, trade, and scientific advances and by 2030 based on many measures will advance beyond the US.

According to McCoy, the United States has embarked on a path to overcome its declining relative economic hegemony by increasingly investing in military advances: a space force, a new generation of nuclear weapons, cyber security, biometrics, and maintaining or enhancing a global military presence particularly in the Pacific (what Obama spokespersons called “the Asian pivot”). In other words, rather than accommodating to a new multipolar world in the 21st century, the United States is seeking to reestablish its global hegemony through military means.

Second, the United States is desperately seeking to overcome the end of its monopoly on technological advances. In computerization, transportation, pharmaceuticals, it is challenging Chinese innovations, claiming that China’s advances are derived not from its domestic creativity but from “pirating” from United States companies. For example, the prestigious and influential Council on Foreign Relations issued a report last year entitled “Innovation and National Security: Keeping Our Edge.” The report warned that “…the United States risks falling behind its competitors, principally China.” China is investing significantly in new technologies, CFR claims, which they predict will make China the biggest inventor by 2030. Also, to achieve this goal they are “exploiting” the openness of the US by violating intellectual property rights and spying. Therefore, the CFR concluded, since technological innovation is linked to economic and military advantage and since US leadership in technology and science is at risk, the nation must recommit to rebuilding its scientific prowess.

Third, while the United States is engaged in efforts at regime change around the world and is using brutal economic sanctions to starve people into submission (such as in Venezuela, Cuba, Iran and 36 other countries victimized by economic sanctions), China is increasing its economic ties to these countries through investments, trade, and assistance. And China opposes these US policies in international organizations. In broad terms Chinese policy stands with the majority of countries in the Global South while the United States seeks to control developments there.

Fourth, although Trump foreign policy is designed to recreate a Cold War, with China as the target, a policy also embraced by most Democrats, there is at the same time counter-pressure from  sectors of the capitalist class who have ties to the Chinese economy: investment, global supply chains, and financial speculation. Moreover, sectors of Chinese capital own or have substantial control over many US corporations and banks. In addition, Chinese investors control over $1 trillion of US debt. For these sectors of US capital, economic ties with China remain economically critical. In addition some writers, such as Jerry Harris, point to the emergence of a “transnational capitalist class” whose interests are not tied to any nation-state (Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Democracy, Clarity Press, 2016).

Consequently, while the trajectory of US policy is toward a return to cold war, there is some push back by economic and political elites as well. As the New York Times article above put it, “In the United States, tycoons and business executives, who exercise enormous sway among politicians of both parties, will continue to push for a more moderate approach, as members of Mr. Trump’s cabinet who represent Wall Street interests have done.”

Fifth, American domestic politics provide the immediate cause of the transformation of US/China policy. Candidate Donald Trump’s popularity is declining dramatically because of the spread of the covid pandemic, its impacts on the US economy, and the rise of racial tensions in the country. A classic antidote for politicians experiencing declining popularity is to construct an external enemy, “an other,” which can redirect the attention of the public from their personal troubles. President Trump has sought to deflect the cause of the spreading pandemic onto the Chinese. It is this external enemy that is the source of our domestic problems. In this context the President is talking tough with the “enemy” of the United States, and, as Secretary of State Pompeo suggests, it is about time that the US government gives up illusions about working with China. Only a Trump administration, he suggested, would be capable of doing this (forget President Obama’s “Asian pivot”).

Finally, the ideological package of racism, white supremacy, and American Exceptionalism so prevalent in United States history has resurfaced in dramatic ways as the Trump administration and its allies have opposed nationwide protests against police violence and structural racism. White supremacy at home is inextricably connected with American Exceptionalism abroad. For example President Theodore Roosevelt in 1910 claimed that the white race has been critical to civilization.  Years later Madeleine Albright, the Secretary of State in the Clinton Administration (and more recently President Barack Obama) spoke about the  United States as the “indispensable nation,”a model of economics and politics for the world. Pompeo continues this tradition claiming that the United States stands for a “free 21st century.” This sense of omniscience has been basic to the ideological justification of United States imperial rule.

Each of these elements, from the changing shape of economic and military capabilities, to political exigencies, to the pathologies of culture, require a peace and justice movement that stands for peaceful coexistence, demilitarization, building a world of economic justice and the rights of people to determine their own destiny, and inalterable opposition to racism, white supremacy, and exceptionalisms of all kinds.

Panel: China-US relations at turning point?        

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