China has become, over the past two decades, the planet’s second-most powerful nation after the United States. Booming economic growth has lifted millions of its citizens out of poverty and catapulted it to the world’s second-largest economy, while increased military spending has made it the second-largest military power (though its military spending, and nuclear stockpile, are still a small fraction of the U.S.’s).
That growth — in both economic and military power — has led U.S. officials to conclude that they must do more to counteract what they regard as China’s growing influence. President Obama, early in his administration, memorably vowed an “Asia pivot,” whereby the U.S. would devote fewer resources and less attention to the Middle East and more toward China’s growing power in its own region.
That led to some moderate escalation in adversarial relations between the two countries — including the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement (TPP) and other regional skirmishes — but nothing approaching direct military confrontation. President Trump, since taking office, has largely heaped praise on the Chinese government and its leader President Xi Jinping, siding with Xi over democracy protests in Hong Kong and even Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
But this pandemic has seriously escalated tensions between the two countries given the increasingly hostile rhetoric emanating from various sectors of the west, making it more urgent than ever to grapple with the complex relations between the two countries and how China ought to be perceived.
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.
That is why standard left-wing anti-imperialism or right-wing isolationism is an insufficient and overly simplified response to thinking about China: policy choices regarding Beijing have immense impact on workers and the economic well-being of citizens throughout the west.
Today’s new episode of SYSTEM UPDATE is devoted to sorting through the complexities of this relationship and how to think about China. 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 of the U.S. working class and to civil liberties in the west.
The show, which I believe provides excellent insight into how to think about these questions, debuts this afternoon at 2:oo pm ET on the Intercept’s YouTube channel or can be viewed on the player below at 2:30 p.m. As always, a transcript of the program will be added shortly thereafter.
Update: May 7, 1:54 p.m. EDT
The debut time for this episode has been moved by 30 minutes; it will not debut on the Intercept’s YouTube channel at 2:30 pm ET.