US-China relations: Washington is still haunted by a Cold War mindset

A recent essay on Washington-Beijing relations wants us to believe that western capitalism’s global rise was accomplished by playing fairly with the rest of the world

Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and historian Niall Ferguson recently published an Economist essay on Washington-Beijing relations. They deserve a rebuke.

Their reflections note the differences between the 20th-century Cold War and the second one allegedly now taking place between the US and China. But they continue to be haunted by a Cold War mindset.

They mistakenly convey the impression that only China has benefited from its opening to the international economy. They mention neither the huge benefits that US and EU corporate sectors got from outsourcing to China a large part of their manufacturing, essentially transferring to Asia all their supply chains; nor the astronomical profits they earned.

Rice and Ferguson rightly recognise that China’s success cannot be explained only as intellectual-property theft – as many western, uninformed opinion-makers and politicians tend to believe – but this is as far as they are willing to go towards offering a fair assessment of US-China relations.

They lament that “China had been chipping away at American power for years”. It is difficult to understand what their point is. Rice is a former secretary of state and Ferguson, in particular, has written excellent books on the rise of western capitalism. They should be aware more than anyone else that humankind’s history has been relentlessly characterised by nations chipping away power from other nations.

History, after all, has been a succession of empires taking over other empires. Do Rice and Ferguson mean to imply that for the American one, there is a sort of manifest destiny to maintain forever its global leadership, with no other nation able to do better?

Some might object that China is challenging the US by not playing by the rules. This topic remains controversial, but leaving aside the similarly controversial question about who established such rules and how they have been applied in recent decades, do Rice and Ferguson really want us to believe that western capitalism’s global rise was accomplished by playing fairly with the rest of the world? Come on!

Capital sins

The two authors mistakenly provide the impression that the real problem with China started with President Xi Jinping’s accession to power in 2013. They attribute two capital sins to him: speaking of “surpassing America in frontier technologies” and calling “the Taiwan Strait Chinese national waters”. Neither represents a fundamental threat to US national security.

The first sin falls within the scope of lese-majeste. The hidden message conveyed by the two authors is that no nation, least of all communist China, should dare to challenge the American technological edge. Well, they are arriving late: China is already surpassing the US in some of the Fourth Industrial Revolution’s leading technologies, from 5G to the Internet of Things, while moving to close the gap in semiconductors.

The latest shock to Washington was Huawei announcing that its new Mate 60 Pro smartphone would be powered by a seven-nanometer processor – a project conceived, designed and built in China, without a single American component. It is hardly necessary to remember that the Chinese company has faced American sanctions and bullying for more than four years.

If, after all this, Huawei has been able to unveil a mobile phone that could challenge the iPhone 14 and, possibly, the just-released iPhone 15, then perhaps Chinese leaders may wish for their whole technological sector to be placed under US sanctions.

The second capital sin concerns Taiwan. It is formulated obliquely by referring to the waters between the island and mainland China. No doubt, these are international waters, but the real issue here is China’s sovereignty claim over Taiwan, which could affect the breadth of the international waters in the Taiwan Strait.

For the record, this issue was not created by Xi when he reached power a decade ago; China has asserted its rights vis-a-vis Taiwan for decades. In 1971, the United Nations voted to admit the People’s Republic of China (mainland China) and to expel the Republic of China (Taiwan). In a nutshell, there is only one China, but the US still arrogantly pretends to decide when this sovereignty can be effectively exercised.

All Chinese leaders, from Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping up to Xi, have not changed their position, although the latter might have claimed China’s rights more assertively. On the contrary, the US has been gradually distancing itself from its One China policy – not formally, but through deliberate acts.

The more ludicrous complaint that Rice and Ferguson level against China is that it has “built an impressive global network of telecommunications infrastructure, underwater cables, port access and military bases … in client states”. Has the US done anything different in recent decades?

Learning lessons

Washington and its Anglosphere clients (the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) run the biggest system of interception and control over all communications on the planet, not even sparing their own allies; it is called Five Eyes. The US military has more than 800 bases spread around the globe, while China has just one military base outside its borders, in Djibouti.

Rice and Ferguson also note that “Chinese influence has evolved from pure mercantilism to a desire for political influence”. Again, has the US done anything different in its history, at least from 1898 (the Spanish-American War) onwards? Does the 1823 Monroe Doctrine sound familiar to Rice and Ferguson?

In essence, all the complaints they level against China are a monumental case of the pot calling the kettle black. Both appear to want the US to take advantage of Chinese missteps. But so far, it has been exclusively China taking advantage of serial US missteps.

The two academics are right to assert that the US and China should “avoid accidental war”, and similarly right to blame China for its unwillingness to discuss accident prevention. But in Chinese tradition, form is substance; how could the two nations agree on accident prevention while the Chinese defence minister is under US sanctions?

Furthermore, the US has a massive military deployment along Chinese coasts, with bases in Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. Maybe this is an element of wider context that Rice and Ferguson should have considered to make their arguments more academically fair. In other words, who is really threatening whom?

Finally, they reference former American diplomat George Kennan’s 1946 “long telegram” on the Soviet Union, and hint at a possible Chinese implosion ahead. They should be careful what they wish for. A Chinese implosion would have devastating consequences for the stability of East Asia and the global economy. Large parts of Chinese policy over the past several decades have been specifically targeted at avoiding such an eventuality.

Rice and Ferguson would do better to keep in mind another of Kennan’s far more relevant lessons on Nato’s eastward expansion, which today has thrown Russia into China’s arms. Yet, the biggest lesson here is that when missteps are involved, US and western democracies are second to none.

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