It’s like a tag team match: the neoconservatives and the labor unions are teaming up to go after China. And in both cases, energy figures prominently in the fight. China, of course, is always a convenient target for anyone looking for a scapegoat for America’s misfortunes. In the case of the neocons, they love to blame China for undercutting US efforts to isolate and pressure Iran over its nuclear program. And for the labor unions, as I reported in a recent feature in The Nation, “China in the Driver’s Seat,” blaming China for stealing American jobs is par for the course.
In different ways, both the neocons and the unions are demanding that the Obama administration take strong action to punish, isolate, and sanction China.
Let’s start with the neocons. The latest salvo from that side is a report from the neoconservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington think tank and advocacy group that is heavily focused on Iran, the Middle East, and the “war on terrorism.” In a report issued September 15, the FDD helpfully provides the federal government with a list of ten Chinese companies that do energy business with Iran, and it calls on the White House to “punish” China and “blacklist” the ten firms. The intent is to force China to halt its oil and gas trade with Iran. Among the companies named by FDD are China’s very biggest state-owned entities, including the Chinese National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) and the China National Petroleum Company (CNPC).
The companies, FDD warns ominously, “have invested in Iran’s oil and natural gas sectors, provided Iran with key energy equipment, technology and services, supplied Iran with refined petroleum, and purchased Iranian petroleum products.” None of that, of course, violates international law, nor does it violate the UN sanctions on Iran, which were supported by China. But the FDD wants nothing less than the total economic isolation of Iran, and it blames China for undermining the unilateral sanctions that the United States seeks to implement against Iran. No rational observer would see anything wrong in China trying to meet its energy needs by dealing with a major world producer such as Iran.
From the other side, the AFL-CIO and its allies, including pro-labor Democrats in Congress and anti-China, xenophobic Republicans—including a vocal Christian-right contingent—want the United States to slam China with economic and trade sanctions in order to force China to revalue its currency, the renminbi. This week, both the House and Senate are holding hearings on the Currency Reform for Fair Trade Act (H.R. 2378), legislation backed by the AFL-CIO, the Steelworkers and others, such as the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM), a project of the Steelworkers. Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, vastly oversimplified a highly complex dynamic by suggesting that slamming China would fix the US jobs problem:
Immediate action on currency manipulation [by China] is the single most important step the US government can take to create jobs at no cost to taxpayers. H.R. 2378…is urgently needed to address a serious and ongoing problem for American workers and manufacturing.
Carl Levin, along with the Steelworkers, is calling for an investigation into China’s government support for green energy technology. "With green technologies promising to be a growth sector in manufacturing, American companies cannot afford to compete with a Chinese government willing to break international trade rules and norms,” Levin writes. “The Chinese government’s requirement to use domestic suppliers and production for green and renewable technology is patently unfair."
And there’s more. What’s most worrying is the possibility that the neocons and the AFL-CIO will make common cause of their China-bashing. So far, the Obama administration and most of the corporate Republicans don’t want to confront China, because the big banks and corporations that call the shots on Capitol Hill are content with the situation as it is and because they are worried that a trade war with China could unravel the global economy. But for populists on the right and left, and China-bashing neocons who want a Pentagon-led showdown with China might yet come together.