Will the Trade War Lead to Real War with China?

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by Chas W. Freeman, Jr, Consortium News:

Five hundred years ago, Hernán Cortés began the European annihilation of the Mayan, Aztec, and other indigenous civilizations in the Western Hemisphere.  Six months later, in August 1519, Magellan [Fernão de Magalhães] launched his circumnavigation of the globe.  For five centuries thereafter, a series of Western powers — Portugal, Spain, Holland, Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and, finally, the United States — overturned preexisting regional orders as they imposed their own on the world.  That era has now come to an end.

In the final phases of the age of Western dominance, we Americans made and enforced the rules.  We were empowered to do so in two phases.  First, around 1880, the United States became the world’s largest economy.  Then, in 1945, having liberated Western Europe from Germany and overthrown Japanese hegemony in East Asia, Americans achieved primacy in both the Atlantic and Pacific.  Almost immediately, the Soviet Union and its then-apparently-faithful Asian companion, Communist China, challenged our new sphere of influence.  In response, we placed our defeated enemies (Germany, Italy, Japan), our wartime allies, and most countries previously occupied by our enemies under American protection.  With our help, these countries — which we called “allies” — soon returned to wealth and power but remained our protectorates.  Now other countries, like China and India, are rising to challenge our global supremacy.

Trump, joined by other U.S. officials, receives Chinese Vice Premier Liu He in Oval Office, January 2019 (Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour via Flickr )

Trump receives Chinese Vice Premier Liu He in Oval Office, January 2019 (Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour via Flickr )

President Donald Trump has raised the very pertinent question: Should states with the formidable capabilities longstanding American “allies” now have still be partial wards of the U.S. taxpayer?  In terms of our own security, are they assets or liabilities?  Another way of putting this is to ask: Do our Cold War allies and their neighbors now face credible threats that they cannot handle by themselves?  Do these threats also menace vital U.S. interests?  And do they therefore justify U.S. military presences and security guarantees that put American lives at risk?  These are questions that discomfit our military-industrial complex and invite severe ankle-biting by what some have called “the Blob” — the partisans of the warfare state now entrenched in Washington.  They are serious questions that deserve serious debate.  We Americans are not considering them.

Instead, we have finessed debate by designating both Russia and China as adversaries that must be countered at every turn.  This has many political and economic advantages.  It is a cure for enemy deprivation syndrome — that queasy feeling our military-industrial complex gets when our enemies disorient us by irresponsibly defaulting on their contest with us and disappearing, as the Soviet Union did three decades ago.  China and Russia are also technologically formidable foes that can justify American R&D and procurement of the expensive, high-tech weapons systems.  Sadly, low intensity conflict with scruffy “terrorist” guerrillas can’t quite do this.

China and Russia Blamed for Our Malaise

No one in the United States now seems prepared to defend either China or Russia against the charge that they, not we, are responsible for our current national dysfunction and malaise.  After all, we’re the best, Russia’s a rogue, and China’s an unfair competitor.  Our patriotism is admirable, theirs is malign.

It must have been the Russians who overcame our better judgment and made us vote against Hillary Clinton and for Donald Trump.  Who other than China could have caused our companies to outsource work to places with cheap labor, instead of upgrading equipment and retraining their workers to meet foreign competition?  A pox on all foreigners, not just Mexican rapists, European rip-off artists, Japanese free riders, Russian trolls, immigrants from “shithole” countries, and Chinese cyber burglars.  Why worry about how to boost our own competitiveness when we can cripple the competitiveness of others?

White House in winter, Feb. 1, 2019. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Bogosian via Flickr)

White House after snow shower, Feb. 1, 2019. (White House Photo by Joyce N. Bogosian via Flickr)

Today our government is trying to break apart Sino-American interdependence, weaken China, and prevent it from overtaking us in wealth, competence, and influence.  We have slapped tariffs on it, barred investment from it, charged it with pilfering intellectual property, arrested its corporate executives, blocked tech transfers to it, restricted what its students can study here, banned its cultural outreach to our universities, and threatened to bar its students from entering them.  We are aggressively patrolling the waters and air spaces off its coasts and islands.  Whether China deserves to be treated this way or not, we are leaving it little reason to want to cooperate with us.

Our sudden hostility to China reflects a consensus — at least within the Washington Beltway — that we need to wrestle China to the ground and pin it there.  But what are the chances we can do that?  What are the consequences of attempting it?  Where are we now headed with China?

Realism is out of fashion in Washington even if it’s alive and well elsewhere in America.  It should give us pause that our new enemy of choice is a very different, larger, and more dynamic country than any we have unbefriended before.  China had a couple of bad centuries.  But 40 years ago, the Chinese Communist Party and government began to evolve what turned out to be a successful model of economic development that blended state capitalism with free enterprise.  This unleashed the entrepreneurial talents of the Chinese people.  The results have been staggering.   Per capita income in China today is 25 times what it was in 1978.  Back then, well over 90 percent of Chinese lived in poverty, as defined by the World Bank.  Today, less than 2 percent do.  China’s GDP is now 60 times bigger than it was 40years ago.

China is no longer isolated, poor, or irrelevant to affairs distant from it.  It is a society with capabilities that rival and are beginning to overtake our own.  China faces many challenges, but its people are resilient, resourceful, and optimistic that the lives of their descendants will be vastly better than their own — this at a time that we Americans are unprecedentedly pessimistic about our own country’s present and future condition.

Flight view of Beijing Capital International Airport. (Wikimedia)

Flight view of Beijing Capital International Airport. (Wikimedia)

Despite increasingly problematic policies, the Chinese economy is still growing almost three times faster than ours.  By some measures, it is already one-third larger.  China’s manufacturing sector accounts for over one fourth of global industrial production and is one-and-a-half times bigger than that of the United States.  China’s ability to defend itself and its periphery against foreign attack is now formidable despite its spending less than 2 percent of GDP on its military.  If pressed to do so, China could spend as much on defense as we do — and that’s a lot: almost $1.2 trillion when you add up all the military spending that is hidden like Easter eggs all over non-Defense Department budgets.

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