Recent months have seen a rapid deterioration in the US-China relationship, which many are calling a new Cold War. In part this is an attempt by Donald Trump and the GOP to use China-bashing to save themselves from a rout in the November elections despite their catastrophic mishandling of the pandemic. But Trump’s anti-China strategy has also been driven by extreme military hawks and economic nationalists. The recently released 2020 Democratic Party Platform suggests that rather than repudiating these toxic forces, Democrats are incorporating much of their basic worldview. If this does not change, then the United States and China will remain on a path to confrontation even if Biden and the Democrats win in November.
The China bashers in the White House imagine that Washington is in an apocalyptic conflict with Beijing. Last week Pompeo delivered a major speech in which he argued that China is an existential threat to the “free world,” declaring, “If we bend the knee now, our children’s children may be at the mercy of the Chinese Communist Party.” Pompeo’s top adviser on China, Miles Yu, believes that the United States and China are headed for “unavoidable confrontation.” These ultrahawks believe that protecting the United States from being taken over by the Chinese Communist Party requires going on the offense against China as quickly as possible. They are doing everything they can to push the US-China relationship past the point of no return, to poison it so deeply that Biden and the Democrats will not be able to undo the damage and will have no choice but to embrace a spiraling conflict, even if they win in November.
The new Democratic Party platform, to its credit, does disavow some key points in Trump’s anti-China strategy, including his “reckless trade war with China” and the “trap of a new Cold War.” It avoids repeating the most inflammatory rhetoric of the right, such as scapegoating China for the pandemic, and notes that “the China challenge is not primarily a military one.” It affirms the need for “cooperation on issues of mutual interest like climate change and nonproliferation.” (Oddly, though, the need for cooperation to beat the pandemic is not mentioned.)
Despite these bright spots, the platform reaffirms a framework of competition and rivalry and prioritizes this over building new forms of cooperation. Preserving this hostile framework renders the Democrats helpless to divert the US-China relationship from its current course toward conflict and catastrophe.
The platform retains a commitment to maintaining US military hegemony in the South China Sea, calling China’s military buildup there “aggression” and “intimidation” that must be resisted. The US Navy’s increased presence in the region is, of course, not criticized as any form of “aggression,” although this is in China’s backyard and 5,000 miles away from the nearest US state, Hawaii. Committing the Democrats to a strategy of military containment in this way feeds into China’s entirely credible fear that it is at risk of being strangled by the US military in its own backyard, and risks open military conflict.
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The Democrats also maintain the idea that China is an economic threat to the United States and reaffirm the so-called “structural” economic issues that are at the heart of the current trade war, including “illegal subsidies and theft of intellectual property,” claiming that Trump has actually been too soft on protecting intellectual property rights. But intellectual property rights are primarily a form of corporate power. The intellectual property system inflates drug prices so that pharmaceutical companies can profit, is currently undermining international collaboration to develop treatments and a vaccine, and interferes with the distribution of the clean energy technology that is necessary to beat climate change. The current system should be weakened and replaced, not strengthened.
As for the accusation of “illegal subsidies,” this is an attack on China’s very successful use of economic planning. The United States should itself engage in more economic planning—both the pandemic and climate change necessitate this—rather than demanding that China end its use of economic planning. Economic planning is at the heart of China’s economic growth strategy and therefore nonnegotiable. For Democrats to maintain this demand merely ensures a continuation of economic conflict, which inevitably feeds military tensions as well.
The platform also commits a Democratic administration to taking measures against China over the abuses of democratic and human rights in Hong Kong and in Xinjiang. It is important that the Democratic Party take a stand on these issues, and it is strategically damaging to let the Republicans position themselves as the champions of human rights in China, as has largely been the case to date. However, US government pressure is ineffective when the relationship is already so fundamentally hostile that Chinese elites expect that US aggression will continue no matter what they do about rights issues. As former Obama adviser Ryan Hass has written about the failure of US pressure to stop China’s crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong, “The U.S. posture of unswerving hostility toward China…lowered the risk that any action on Hong Kong could worsen U.S.-China ties, since they already had become adversarial.” In the case of Hong Kong, economic sanctions are actually accelerating the assimilation of Hong Kong into mainland China. As Wilfred Chan writes, current strategy follows a “suicidal logic.” In addition, the US government’s clear hypocrisy when it comes to questions of Islamophobia, mass incarceration, and crackdowns on protesters makes it easy for Chinese elites to delegitimize pressure from the US over human rights.
We should be realistic and acknowledge that the ability of the US government to influence the domestic affairs of a country as powerful as China is limited. That said, to increase the effectiveness of pressure on China over rights issues, a Democratic government must chart an alternative path beyond the US-China conflict, while also addressing our own failure to be consistent on human rights protections. Otherwise, the impact is likely to be inflammatory, without improving protections for anyone’s rights.
Although the platform commits the Democrats to confront China in all these ways, it also seems to imagine that we can maintain robust cooperation to meet global challenges like climate change at the same time. Its authors may recall that the US and USSR were able to collaborate over important issues, such as smallpox and arms control, despite being locked in the Cold War. As some have argued, if that was possible, the two countries similarly ought to be able to cooperate around shared challenges such as the pandemic and climate change, even as the US-China rivalry intensifies. But the Cold War is a false analogy.
The height of the Cold War coincided with strong economic growth in both the US and USSR, at a time when each maintained economies that were largely independent of each other. This allowed both countries to become more prosperous despite their differences, which in turn facilitated cooperation around shared challenges. The current US-China conflict, in contrast, is driven by growing dysfunctions in the global neoliberal system. This dynamic makes the relative stability of the Cold War unattainable.
The global economy never truly recovered from the 2008 financial crisis, and at a global level, economic growth has been weak. This has led to zero-sum competition over shrinking opportunities for growth. Such competition is particularly fierce between the United States and China—which, for example, are both vying for control over the most profitable industries in the tech sector. This zero-sum competition has fed a growth in nationalism in the United States, China, and beyond, and that nationalism has led to confrontational policies that only make things worse. The US-China trade war, for example, threatened to push the entire global economy into recession even before the pandemic, further weakening growth, and further feeding a spirit of zero-sum competition. We are thus at risk of falling into a feedback loop in which escalating nationalism drives conflict, which worsens the dysfunctions of the global system, intensifying competitive pressures and feeding further nationalist conflict.
These underlying trends in the global system are biased towards escalation and are more akin to the lead up to World War II than to the Cold War. Those who imagine that US-China cooperation can coexist with a relatively stable, low-conflict US-China rivalry misunderstand this.
The only way out is to radically transform the global system, a project that will require greater cooperation, not competition, between Washington and Beijing. It is up to the left to develop this alternative, to build power around it both at the grassroots level and in partnership with progressive leaders in the Democratic Party. Without such transformation, even if Biden and the Democratic Party win in November, they will prove incapable of overcoming the Republicans’ efforts to lock the United States and China into conflict, creating a more dangerous and more deeply divided world.