The new Cold War with China

In order to be able to justify its obscene levels of spending on the military, the US has to always portray itself as being under threat and in imminent danger. With the end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the next threat we were told was from the drug cartels, and then we had al Qaeda and the threat of an Islamic takeover. In between we even had the silliness of Nicaragua and the small island nation of Grenada being portrayed as the beachheads for a possible invasion of the US.

Trump sensed the war weariness of the nation and when running for the presidency, promised to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, scale back involvement in NATO, and bring many of the US troops stationed around the globe back home. He has achieved very few of those goals and now that his abject failure in dealing with the pandemic is being exposed daily, he seems to have decided to resurrect the Great External Threat to take attention away from all his failures. Bypassing other candidates like Russia or North Korea, he seems to have picked China as the target, knowing that Democrats will always join in in attacking Russia and China. Both Trump and Biden have ramped up the anti-China rhetoric, though in his first three years in office and even as late as March of this year, Trump was effusively praising that country and its leader Xi Jinping. His secretary of state Mike Pompeo has been the most belligerent in his anti-China rhetoric.

So is China the latest nation to become the Main Enemy of the US? And how successfully can it be demonized? Robin Wright argues that starting a new cold war with China is not a winning strategy for Trump.

Pompeo walked to a dais overlooking the parking lot—where folding chairs for a small audience were set up six feet apart, in spaces normally reserved for tourist buses—and angrily declared that Nixon’s outreach to China a half century ago had utterly failed. He called on allies to create a new nato-like coalition to confront the People’s Republic and stopped just short of calling for regime change. Basically, he declared a new Cold War.

Pompeo’s provocative speech—the last of four on China in recent weeks by top U.S. officials, including Attorney General William Barr; the F.B.I. director, Christopher Wray; and the national-security adviser, Robert O’Brien—represented a total policy reversal by the Trump Administration.

Stapleton Roy, who participated in the secret talks that led to U.S.-China relations in the nineteen-seventies and served as Ambassador in the nineteen-nineties, called Trump’s gambit reckless. “There was no strategic thinking,” he said, dismissing Pompeo’s address as a political speech to appease voters who view China as a threat. “To mindlessly hurl yourself against China is a misunderstanding of the situation in China—and in East Asia, where countries don’t want a confrontation,” Roy, who was Ambassador to Beijing during the George H. W. Bush and Clinton Administrations, told me.

Even more stunning was the notion that Washington could win a Cold War with Beijing, former U.S. envoys told me. “We could win a Cold War with the Soviet Union thirty years ago, but we can’t win a Cold War with China today,” the anonymous Ambassador said. Unlike the Soviet Union, China is too integrated into the world economy, a point that Pompeo conceded. “Beijing is more dependent on us than we are on them,” he claimed. Yet America is also dependent on China for many basic commodities, including roughly half of its medical supplies.

Throughout the last Cold War, which spanned more than four decades, the U.S. had powerful allies on the European front lines to stand united, pool resources, and squeeze Moscow. Today, all major U.S. allies in and around Asia, including Australia, want to foster coöperation, not confrontation, with China—and don’t want to choose between Washington and Beijing. All of America’s old friends in the Asia-Pacific region—Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Taiwan—have more trade with China than with the United States, Roy said, which means that “Polarization doesn’t align with their interests.” Western allies don’t want confrontation, either. A U.S. Cold War with China could be quite lonely.

Glenn Greenwald writes that dealing with China requires going beyond the old left-right mindset, because China’s engagement with the rest of the world is quite different from what the former Soviet Union and Russia had, while the US ‘s standing in the world, and especially with its strongest ally Europe, has sunk to very low levels thanks to Trump’s actions. Greenwald also points out that with past targeted enemies such as the Soviet Union, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Cuba, Venezuela, etc. all the segments of the US ruling classes were united against the designated enemy and the mainstream media would obediently fall into line., In the case of China, however, large segments of US manufacturing and the tech sector have operations and supply chains in China and are fighting efforts to cut ties with it.

The question is far more complex than the usual efforts to create a new U.S. Enemy because numerous power centres in the U.S. and the west generally — particularly its oligarchs, Wall Street, and international capital — are not remotely hostile to Beijing but, quite the contrary, are both fond of it and dependent upon it. That’s why — unlike with other U.S. enemies such as Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro, the Iranian government or Nicolas Maduro — one finds very powerful actors, from Bill Gates to Michael Bloomberg to the consulting giant McKinsey to Trump himself, defending Chinese officials and urging better relations with them.

That, in turn, reflects a critical reality about U.S./China relations that defies standard foreign policy frameworks: while hawkish, pro-war political elements in both parties speak of China as an adversary that must be confronted or even punished, the interests of powerful western financial actors — the Davos crowd — are inextricably linked with China, using Chinese markets and abusive Chinese labor practices to maximize their profit margins and, in the process, stripping away labor protections, liveable wages and jobs from industrial towns in the U.S. and throughout the west.

He then interviews between two people with two opposing views of whether China is a competitor to the US or an adversary or even an enemy.

I’m joined by two guests with radically different views on these questions: the long-time Singeporean diplomat who served as President of the U.N. Security Council, Kishore Mahbubani, whose just-released compelling book “Has China Won?” argues that the U.S. should view China as a friendly competitor and not as a threat to its interests; and Matt Stoller, who has worked on issues of economic authoritarianism and the U.S. working class in multiple positions in Congress and in various think tanks, culminating in his 2019 book “Goliath,” and who argues that China is a threat to the economic well-being.

You can see the discussion below. It lasts one hour and 48 minutes. The first 36 minutes has Greenwald setting up the framework for what follows and explaining why the US-relationship with China is so complicated. The next 32 minutes has his interview with Mahbubani, and in the final 40 minutes he interviews Stoller. (You can save some time by speeding up the video to 1.25 times the regular speed that enables you listen without losing comprehension.)


  1. says

    The Chinese nuclear arsenal is 1/100th the size of the US. Pompeo Maximus probably wants to reduce the global population by 1/4 and trigger nuclear winter to offset global warming.

  2. says

    Don Hamberdler is now arguing that if Microsoft buys the American division of TikTok, the US should get a cut because he made it happen.

    “Nice building you have here. Be a shame of something happened to it. Get rid of it or I’ll burn it down. Oh, you sold it? Good. I made that happen so now you have to give me a chunk of the money.”

  3. Canadian Steve says

    There’s a lot to unpack with the USA’s (and world’s) relationship with China, and I do think it’s about time to bring some pressure to bear re: human rights, trade equity however this will take an extremely thoughtful, nuanced, very carefully planned and very carefully executed plan to deal with the level of complexities involved.
    Essentially all the steps that give the US any leverage whatsoever (limited though it would be) are economic and start with the US reforming its own economy. Another step that is required is technological in securing networks (ground and satellite) and ensuring the US can defend these assets in the virtual world. Military spending on armaments such as ships, planes and tanks will not help at all. (not to mention the budget is already so large that half the budget would be more than enough for these things anyway)
    So, when was the last time the Trump administration was accused of careful planning or execution?

  4. mnb0 says

    “We could win a Cold War with the Soviet Union thirty years ago,”
    This is nonsense. The USA did not win the Cold War, the SU lost it due to its internal weaknesses. The events of 1989 were a complete surprise and the USA had zero influence on what happened the two years that followed.
    The second part is correct -- China is not going to repeat the mistakes of the former SU.

    @2 Marcus Ranum: for its global strategy, which thus far is pretty successfull, China doesn’t need nuclear weapons. It doesn’t need to spend much, relatively speaking, on the military at all.

    What’s happening to Hongkong right now is a good example. China won’t stop there; the big difference is that it has a long term strategy while the USA hasn’t.
    The anti-China rhetoric is for domestic political purposes. You can safely bet that China will benefit.

  5. says

    “I do think it’s about time to bring some pressure to bear re: human rights…”

    And then after that pressure is brought to bear on the US, turn to China?

  6. consciousness razor says

    And then after that pressure is brought to bear on the US, turn to China?

    Errr…. Why wait? Is there any reason not to press on both at the same time?

  7. KG says

    consciousness razor@7,

    None at all. But it’s a lot easier to do in countries where basic civil and democratic rights exist. If Trump is re-elected, those are in short-term peril in the USA. If Biden is elected, they aren’t.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *