The China Question

An Emerging New Cold War

Bellamy Foster

The strategic objec-tive of the New Cold War on China from the standpoint of the United States and its allies is not so much to contain China economically, politically, and militarily, which is not possible, but rather to find ways to constrain it, making it impossible for it to effect changes in the global order despite its emerging power position. The new imperial grand strategy is thus designed to replicate on a global scale (and in the thermonuclear age) the famous “gunboat diplomacy” imposed on the Qing dynasty by the leading imperial powers during China’s “Century of Humiliation,” stretching from the Opium Wars up to the Second World War. This was symbolised above all by the British destruction of the emperor’s Summer Palace in 1860, designed to humiliate the Qing dynasty. In 1900, during the so-called Boxer Rebellion (Yihetuan Movement), the great powers invaded China in what was referred to as the Eight-Nation Alliance (then consisting of Britain, the United States, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Japan, and Russia), imposing their authority on the Qing dynasty and forcing further unequal treaties on the country. Part of the justification given at the time was that China needed to conform to international rules of trade and conduct.

In an analogous fashion to the treatment of China in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, China today, according to current US imperial grand strategy, is to be economically, geopolitically, and militarily constrained by a broad alliance of imperial powers. The object is ultimately that of bringing about the demise of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and tightly binding China to the imperial order of global monopoly-finance capital, while reducing it to permanent subaltern status. The principal means of achieving this will be a system of unequal treaties—the rules-based international order—imposed by a coalition of great powers, with the United States at the top.

The chief mechanism for defeating China was spelled out in 2017 by Harvard foreign policy analyst Graham Allison, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, in his book Destined for War: Can America Escape the Thucydides Trap?, a work highly praised by Biden, former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, and former CIA director and former commander of the US Central Command David Petraeus. In Allison’s words:

‘US forces could covertly train and support separatist insurgents. Fissures in the Chinese state already exist. Tibet is essentially occupied territory. Xinjiang, a traditionally Islamic region in western China, already harbors an active Uighur separatist movement responsible for waging a low-level insurgency against Beijing. And Taiwanese who watch Beijing’s heavy-handedness in Hong Kong hardly require encouragement to oppose reunification with this increasingly authoritarian govern-ment. Could US support for these separatists draw Beijing into conflicts with radical Islamist groups throughout Central Asia and the Middle East? If so, could these become quagmires, mirroring the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan where US-supported mujahideen “freedom fighters” bled the Soviet Union?’

A subtle but concentrated effort to accentuate the contradictions at the core of Chinese Communist ideology…could, over time, undermine the regime and encourage independence movements in Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong. By splintering China at home and keeping Beijing embroiled in maintaining domestic stability, the US could avert, or at least substantially delay, China’s challenge to American dominance.

All of this is now New Cold War policy. Moreover, by attacking China with allegations of “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” in relation to its internal populations, the United States is able to justify its New Cold War on China, including its actual hybrid warfare, combining an array of political, economic, financial, technological, cyber, and more traditional overt and covert military means.

The foremost US theorist of the rules-based international order is G. John Ikenberry, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, whose work has had a strong influence on the Biden administration. In a famous 2004 essay on “Liberalism and Empire,” Ikenberry—although not denying that the US past and present had often been characterized by imperial domination (even going so far as to cite leading left revisionist historians such as William Appleman Williams, Gabriel Kolko, and Joyce Kolko)—nonetheless argued strongly against those in US foreign policy circles who believed that the United States should openly comport itself as an empire. A more effective hegemonic strategy, Ikenberry argued at the time, would be to utilize the unipolar moment to establish a rules-based international order that would secure US and Western global domination as a fait accompli well into the future, even in the face of eventual declining US power.

As China’s historic rise became more apparent, Ikenberry wrote a 2008 essay for Foreign Affairs on “The Rise of China and the Future of the West,” in which he insisted that the “globalized capitalist system” and the Western liberal international order could only be preserved if direct US hegemony gave way to the rules-based order enforced by the collective weight of the United States together with its major allies. In this way, an “American-led liberal hegemonic order” could be secured indefinitely. As US secretary of state Hillary Clinton put it, it was essential to prevent a more “multi-polar world” from emerging by instituting in its stead a “multi-partner world,” a set of US-led alliances and partnerships that would guarantee Washington’s continued dominance in the twenty-first century.

This conception of a rules-based order as means of organising a global counterrevolution found strong bipartisan support in the United States and, most significantly, within the Pentagon. For Trump’s secretary of defense James N. Mattis (known as Mad Dog Mattis), speaking to cabinet secretaries and the joint chiefs of staff on July 20, 2017, “the greatest gift the greatest generation left us was the rules-based postwar international order,” which he illustrated by pointing to “color representations of NATO, capital markets and various trade deals to which the United States is signatory,” standing not for international law—certainly not the UN system—but rather for the US/NATO-dominated liberal international and strategic order.

Thus, central to the whole conception of a hegemonic rules-based international order, according to Ikenberry, is the surmounting of a UN-based system geared to the sovereign equality of states and a polycentric world, and which includes China and Russia as permanent members of the Security Council. Instead, the rules-based international order is meant to codify the changes introduced in the 1990s, establishing the “contingent character of sovereignty,” such that the great powers have a “a right—even a moral obligation—to intervene in troubled states to prevent genocide and mass killing. NATO’s interventions in the Balkans and the war against Serbia,” he wrote, “were defining actions of this sort.”[43] The doctrine of humanitarian imperialism based on “the right to protect” thus became key to the definition of the rules-based international order.

The doctrine of a rules-based international order has been used to justify the continual US/NATO military interventions and US-sponsored coups directed at populations in five of the six inhabited continents since the 1990s—all in the name of the promotion of democracy and human rights. “Liberal internationalism,” Ikenberry, its strongest intellectual defender, indicates in his latest work, “is implicated in almost constant military interventions during the era of American global dominance,” while under neoliberalism, the economic counterpart of this has become a mere “platform of rules and institutions for capitalist transactions,” invariably favoring the powers-that-be.

Commenting in January 1850 on the first stirrings of the Taiping Revolution (1850–64) in China, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels pointed to the birth of “Chinese socialism.” European reactionaries with their armies, they indicated, might someday arrive at the frontiers of China only to “find there the inscription”:
République Chinoise,
Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité
Marx and Engels’s extraordinarily prescient insight was a century
(John Bellamy Foster is the editor of Monthly Review and professor of Sociology at the university of Oregon)

[Courtesy: MR On-Line]

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Vol. 54, No. 8, Aug 22 - 28, 2021