The road to a new cold war with China

October 22, 2018

Ashley Smith provides the backdrop for understanding the conflict between the U.S. and China that is already becoming the main inter-imperial rivalry of the 21st century.

THE TRUMP administration’s most important foreign policy priority has gotten very little fanfare amid all of Trump’s other provocations and atrocities: the opening stages of a new cold war with China.

The billionaire bigot’s lapdog, Vice President Mike Pence, publicly announced it in a speech at the Hudson Institute in early October.

Pence railed against China as a great power competitor and imminent threat to American democracy, geopolitical power and global economic supremacy. He went so far as to accuse Beijing of trying to interfere in U.S. elections to tip them against Trump and the Republicans — which takes some gall given the ongoing investigation led by special prosecutor Robert Mueller.

Pence announced that “our message to China’s rulers is this: This president will not back down. The American people will not be swayed. And we will continue to stand strong for our security and our economy.”

Donald Trump delivers an address at the Yokota Air Base in Japan
Donald Trump delivers an address at the Yokota Air Base in Japan (Senior Airman Donald Hudson | flickr)

Pence’s speech came on the heels of a series of intensifying conflicts between the U.S. and China. Trump has launched a trade war with Beijing, imposing tariffs of between 10 and 25 percent on over $200 billion in Chinese products, and Chinese Premier Xi Jinping has reciprocated with duties of between 5 and 25 percent on $60 billion worth of American commodities.

The U.S. has also intensified attacks against China for spying and the theft of intellectual property rights. In a first, the FBI lured a senior Chinese intelligence official, Xu Yanjun, to Belgium, and then arrested and extradited him to the U.S. on the charge of committing economic espionage against GE Aviation.

Even more frightening, the U.S., in a deliberate provocation, sent a Navy destroyer, the USS Decatur, on a “freedom of navigation mission” in the South China Sea. The Chinese Navy deployed its own destroyer to intercept it, nearly causing a collision, with the ships veering away at the last minute and missing each other by only 45 yards.


ALL OF this is a sign of a shift in the Trump’s strategy toward China.

While he had promised a confrontational approach during the 2016 election, Trump had, up until recently, pursued what can only be called a bromance with Xi Jinping, inviting him for a sleepover at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida in April 2017. Xi happily returned the favor, hosting Trump to a chummy dinner in the Forbidden Palace a few months later in November 2017.

Whatever male bonding they might have shared, Trump mainly wanted Xi to pressure North Korea to roll back its nuclear weapons program and missile tests.

At this point, Trump was still held back from his belligerent predisposition toward China by establishment members of his top staff, especially Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and senior economic advisor Gary Cohn.

Earlier this year, Trump got rid of all three, appointing hawks like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo and elevating others like Peter Navarro. All are committed to a more belligerent foreign policy and economic protectionism against American competitors, especially China.

The big shift in foreign policy was delayed after South Korea, in defiance of Trump’s warmongering, managed a breakthrough in negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear program. Since then, Trump has escalated his drive toward a cold war with China.

The administration signaled the outlines of its policy in its National Security Strategy, which abandons the U.S. role of superintending the neoliberal order in favor of an America First foreign policy dedicated to restoring U.S. political, economic and military competitiveness against its principal great power adversary China.

The Defense Department further developed this strategy in a new study titled “Assessing and Strengthening the Manufacturing and Defense Industrial Base.” This study identifies the erosion of the U.S. military-industrial complex and particularly the dependence on supply chains in China as a threat to national security.

To overcome this weakness, the Pentagon study advocates that the U.S. initiate a state-led industrial policy that includes: increased defense spending; redevelopment of its manufacturing base; training a high-tech manufacturing workforce; reorienting the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines in U.S. education systems; and redirecting any offshore production to allied countries away from China.


IT WOULD be a mistake to chalk up the increased rivalry between the U.S. and China to Trump’s economic nationalism and imperialist warmongering alone. Certainly, Trump has brought the rivalry into sharp relief, but its roots lie deeper — in the developments of world capitalism and the consequent changing balance of world imperial power.

After the collapse of the Russian empire and the end of the Cold War, the U.S. stood as an unrivalled superpower. Its presidents, starting with George Bush Sr., generally aimed to incorporate all the world’s states into a neoliberal world order of free trade globalization that the U.S. would oversee.

Three developments undermined this project. First, China used its opening to the world economy to turn itself from an economic backwater into the second-largest economy in the world, increasingly challenging the U.S., not only in manufacturing, but now in high tech.

Second, the U.S. attempt to expand and enforce the neoliberal order through its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq ended in failure. The Bush Jr. administration had hoped the “war on terror” would allow the U.S. to assert control over Middle East strategic oil reserves, and thereby gain leverage over all the states, like China, that rely on them.

Third, the Great Recession hammered the U.S. and Europe, throwing them into sharp economic downturns. China, by contrast, engaged in massive stimulus spending by the government that quickly righted its economy and sustained much of the ongoing expansion in the Asia Pacific and Latin America.

Xi Jinping assumed power in 2012 determined to take advantage of Washington’s relative decline and accelerate China’s continued rise. In a departure from Beijing’s previously cautious approach, China announced itself to the world as a great power.

On the economic front, Xi launched One Belt One Road, a $1 trillion project to develop the infrastructure of Eurasia and Africa under Beijing’s aegis. He also initiated China 2025, another program that aims to develop the country’s high-tech industry to rival that of the U.S. and Europe.

To back all this up with a credible threat of force, China under Xi has increased defense spending and modernized its military forces — in particular, the Navy, so that it can project its power into the East and South China Seas. China seized several islands and constructed military bases there to enforce its control of fisheries, shipping lanes, and undersea oil and gas reserves.

And in a sign that its ambitions are not just regional, but global, China established its first overseas military base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa.

Thus, China has transformed itself into an imperialist power increasingly in conflict with the U.S. over everything from international politics, assertions of regional military power, and economic supremacy. Indeed, the conflict between the U.S. and China will now become the central inter-imperial rivalry of the 21st century.


UP UNTIL now, the U.S. had pursued a strategy that combined engagement and containment — what some observers call “con-gagement” — to deal with the rise of China.

The U.S. foreign policy establishment hoped multinational investments and integration of the Chinese state into the WTO would encourage China to accept free-market reforms, privatize its state owned corporations, and democratize its police state.

But at the same time, the U.S. hedged its bets, maintaining its massive military presence in Asia and the Pacific and its regional alliance structure to deter China from asserting any imperial ambitions.

Barack Obama’s much-talked-about Pivot to Asia was the most recent version of “con-gagement.”

The Obama administration hoped to use the Trans-Pacific Partnership economic agreement to impose free-market rules on the region, bolster the American alliances and redeploy 60 percent of the Navy to contain China’s increasing assertion of military power in its seas.

But Obama’s Pivot ended in failure. Because the U.S. got bogged down in the Middle East, the Obama administration was unable to redeploy the Navy, and it failed to get the TPP passed through Congress.

Afterward under Trump, but even before, many Asian countries feared that the U.S. was retreating from the region — and began to chart their own course, with some, like Japan, building up their own military against China, and others, like the Philippines, flirting with the idea of joining China’s sphere of influence.

So the American ruling class as a whole recognizes that China’s rise is a threat to its global dominance — and that a better strategy is needed to deal with it.

As the Economist observes: “Democrats and Republicans are vying to outdo each other in bashing China. Not since the late 1940s has the mood among American businessfolk, diplomats and the armed forces swung so rapidly behind the idea that the United States faces a new ideological and strategic rival.”


WITHIN THIS anti-China consensus, there are two broad camps. On one extreme, Trump and Co. have launched their new cold war — with its component parts consisting of increased military spending, confrontational deployment of the U.S. Navy, and economic protectionism to redevelop American manufacturing.

The other camp, which is really the mainstream of the foreign policy establishment, favors a more muscular version of Obama’s Pivot to Asia that would ratify the TPP, rally allies to stand up to China, and impose tariffs and sanctions on China with the aim of shoring up the U.S.-dominated neoliberal world order.

The Democratic Party advocates this position, and it is no less aggressive against China than Trump. If anything, party leaders try to talk tougher.

For example, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer declared: “President Trump’s pattern continues: Tough talk on China, but weaker action than anyone could ever imagine. To make an announcement that they’re going to decide whether to have an investigation on China’s well-documented theft of our intellectual property is another signal to China that it is okay to keep stealing.”

When Trump finally imposed tariffs on China, Schumer praised the new policy, predicting, “It’s going to take a little bit of toughness at the beginning. China will bark back. But they need us more than we need them — President Trump is right about that — and we should be strong. So I thought what he did on China is right.”

Even the standard bearer of American liberalism, Elizabeth Warren, has staked out a hawkish position on China, judging that whole idea that the U.S. could integrate Beijing into the neoliberal order without coercion “was misdirected. We told ourselves a happy-face story that never fit with the facts. Now U.S. policymakers are starting to look more aggressively at pushing China to open up the markets without demanding a hostage price of access to U.S. technology.”

Even democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders joined the China-bashing chorus, stating, “I strongly support imposing stiff penalties on countries like China, Russia, South Korea and Vietnam to prevent them from illegally dumping steel and aluminum into the U.S. and throughout the world.”

More recently, in his second major foreign policy address, Sanders called for a progressive new internationalism against global inequality and authoritarianism.

He did not mention the intensifying inter-imperial rivalry between the U.S. and China — a shocking omission in and of itself — but if the gist of Sanders’ program is to use the American empire as a vehicle against authoritarian states, this attitude could give a left cover to the same aggressive anti-China stance of moderate Democrats and right-wing Republicans alike.


THE TRUTH is that the American state is not a pacifist, progressive or even neutral institution that can be taken over to advance an internationalist progressive movement. It is a ruling class institution that oversees exploitation at home and imperial rule abroad. That’s why Martin Luther King Jr. rightly concluded that it is “the greatest purveyor of violence in our world today.”

Neither Trump’s new cold war nor the Democrats’ more muscular version of the Pivot will advance the interests of U.S. or Chinese workers and oppressed peoples. They are merely contrasting strategies for U.S. imperialism’s conflict with China.

The left must also reject the idea that the regime in Beijing is some kind of alternative to champion. It should be obvious that China is a capitalist dictatorship that exploits its working class and has imperialist ambitions to contend for domination of the world system against its current ruler: the U.S.

The new socialist movement should oppose both U.S. and Chinese imperialism by building international solidarity between the working classes and oppressed nations of the world. Only such an internationalist movement from below can put the brakes on the drive toward inter-imperial conflict between these two great powers.

Recent articles

Monday, November 19th

Friday, November 16th

Thursday, November 15th

Wednesday, November 14th

Tuesday, November 13th

Monday, November 12th

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Today's Stories

From the archives