Diary from Trumpland

U.S' China obsession

Print edition : October 09, 2020

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at an online meeting with Foreign Ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, on September 10. During the meeting, Pompeo urged the countries of ASEAN to act against China’s dominance. Photo: VTV/AP

Nothing the U.S. does will change the fact that China is now economically strong or that a multipolar political world order is emerging. Countries in the region need to come to terms with these facts and negotiate from that perspective.

Not a day goes by without the United States and China exchanging sharp diplomatic language, with restrictions placed on diplomats and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatening this action and that action. Pompeo bangs on about Hong Kong and Xinjiang while U.S. President Donald Trump and his trade team threaten more and more sanctions on the Chinese firms TikTok and WeChat. In a move to provoke a response from China, Trump sent his Health Secretary, Alex Azar, to Taiwan. The shuttering of the Chinese consulate in Houston (Texas) and U.S. officials’ statements about Chinese espionage in the U.S. led to the Chinese imposing restrictions on U.S. diplomatic officials inside China.

Long-time State Department analysts bemoan the maximum position taken by the Trump White House against China. There is little room for a diplomatic manoeuvre, they tell this writer. Each day, Trump, or one of his associates, “pushes the envelope off the table”, said a U.S. State Department veteran; “the U.S.,” he said, will have “no room for a conversation. We will only be able to make demands.”

Meanwhile, in Beijing, officials are openly asking for de-escalation of the rhetoric and of the information and economic warfare between the two countries. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Xinhua news agency in August that China was open to dialogue “at any level, in any area and at any time”.

There is no room, however, on two fundamental issues, which have become facts. First, China’s economy has become central to world affairs. For many countries, China is now not only the main trade partner but the leading investor. If the gross domestic product is calculated on the basis of purchasing power parity, the International Monetary Fund estimates China’s economy to have surpassed that of the U.S. in 2014. The Fortune Global 500 list of the most powerful companies released in August has 124 Chinese firms, 121 U.S. firms and 53 Japanese firms. The resilience of China’s economy despite the pandemic shows that it has a well-developed (and large) internal market that will make it difficult for the U.S. to totally subordinate Chinese development.

Second, a number of countries, including China, have become sufficiently confident to challenge the unipolar domination of the U.S. over international institutions, including the United Nations. China has openly said that it does not desire to supplant the U.S. but wants to operate within a multipolar system. With a majority of countries sharing this goal, it will be a difficult one to sideline.

The U.S. government, however, is unwilling to acknowledge either of these facts: the strength of the Chinese economy or the emergence of a multipolar world.

‘War council’

Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, told Fox News in July that Trump had created a “kind of war council” to destroy the Chinese Communist Party. Trump’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”—Pompeo, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray, Attorney General William Barr and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien—are the key figures in this “war council”.

“These four individuals,” Bannon said, “laid out an integrated and coherent war plan to confront the Chinese Communist Party on technological and information war and economic war….” This use of a “full-spectrum” attack—a hybrid war, to call it by another name—includes these three key aspects that are prior to a military campaign: an information, economic and technological war. The information war includes the way that the U.S. has framed the COVID-19 pandemic as a “Chinese virus”, accusing the Chinese government—against all evidence—of being responsible for the virus (that Trump told The Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward in March that he was lying to his citizenry about the severity of the virus is a clearer reason why he would like to defray his responsibility onto China). It also includes the sharp way in which the U.S., with its terrible human rights record, has sought to displace the world’s outrage onto Chinese policy in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

The economic and technological war has targeted Chinese high-tech firms such as Huawei, TikTok and WeChat. Here, the U.S. case against China is weak. The U.S. is reliant upon imports from China, while China has begun—by reliance upon its internal market—to slowly reduce its dependence on the U.S. market. Nonetheless, in the short term, both the U.S. and China will not be able to easily untangle their economic relations. The point here is not to actually break the economic link but to use economic warfare, as Bannon put it, to weaken the Chinese government. That is the true goal of the policy.

Regional mischief

Part of the war council’s work, Bannon said, is for the U.S. to “with our allies, start to open up the South China Sea, and support our allies in India on the border of Chinese-occupied Tibet”. This is highly inflammatory. It suggests that the U.S., through the India-Pacific Strategy, is less interested in security along the Asian rim and more interested in using its alliance strategy to pursue its own goals. These goals are to prevent the growth of the Chinese economy, particularly in the high-tech sector, and to prevent the emergence of a multipolar political world order. U.S. allies in the region—such as Australia, India and Japan—do not share these goals in the same way.

On the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting in Moscow in September, Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Wang Yi held difficult talks about the border dispute in Ladakh. Tensions in Galwan and in Pangong Tso remain unresolved, with an unclear Line of Actual Control and unclear objectives of both sides on the ground and at the negotiating table. Lingering above this conversation is pressure from the U.S., which, as Bannon said, is egging the Indian government on against China. This intervention by the U.S. has complicated an already fraught process, which has remained unresolved since the 1950s.

Remarks by State Department officials clarify that Pompeo has suggested cryptically that the U.S. fully backs India in Ladakh because it wants to scuttle the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China and Pakistan want to shape this road and trade link into a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It is useful for the U.S. to raise the issues of Xinjiang and Tibet, both areas vital to the BRI, and to urge India on during the border negotiations. All these moves already threaten the economic activity of the BRI. It does not help that a more aggressive France has dangled before India its military bases in Reunion and Madagascar for India’s aims to press against the Chinese navy’s operations into the Indian Ocean.

The two processes that the U.S. would like to reverse—China’s economic strength and the emergence of multipolarity—are now inevitable. All the pressure on China will not be able to change these developments. It behoves the region to come to terms with these facts and then negotiate from that perspective. Otherwise, countries like India will become merely pawns of the war council of the White House.

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