In a recent article in the Financial Times one of their leader writers, Martin Wolf, makes observations on the determination of the Biden administration to contain China. Wolf concludes that this is not a feasible policy but he does so from the perspective of someone not in sympathy with much of China today. So, let’s look at Wolf and then look at the dilemma of the US containment policy of China.
Wolf is critical of China’s policy in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and human rights. He holds to the view that China threatens Taiwan’s de facto autonomy and its increasing power in the S China Sea. He believes that China is behaving like a rising great power ruled by a ruthless and effective despot – Xi Jinping and the Party.
On all of these policies, it is my view that Wolf is fundamentally wrong. China is not guilty of genocide or forced sterilisation or forced labour in Xinjiang. China has intervened in Hong Kong after the US/UK fanned the flames of protest including the attack on the HK Legislature with violence equal to the Trump-inspired assault on the Capitol in Washington. Taiwan was, and remains, part of China and is not an independent country free to pursue policies that run counter to China. China remains effective in the South China Sea whilst the US 8th Fleet patrols its waters with its aircraft carriers and, military forces drawn from its 52 bases surrounding China and all have ICBM’s aimed at Beijing. China is not, and will not hold any ambitions to be, a superpower. It does not export its ideology to any other country and, it pursues the Belt and Road Initiative – not to create an Empire – but to increase prosperity wherever its influence reaches. Finally, with regard to human rights, the people of China have never been happier or more prosperous and its democracy with 10,000 deaths from Covid provided many more rights and protection for its people than the US (400,000 deaths) or the UK (110,000 deaths).
But let’s come back to the US and current thinking within the State Department and the Pentagon. Their goal is to protect a long list of US interests across the world; to retain economic and technological superiority; to protect the global status of the US Dollar; to maintain overwhelming military deterrence; to protect Taiwan, and to develop a rules-based liberal international order. This is not achievable, says Wolf, because; first, China is a far more potent adversary than the USSR. Second, China has a much more successful economy; a more dynamic technology sector; a far larger population; a more cohesive political structure and competent government in Beijing. In addition, China’s economic performance has been “stunning” – says Wolf.
China also has enormous potential. Its output per head at purchasing power parity is one-third of the US’s and one-half of the EU’s. By 2050, China’s economy will be as big as the economies of the US and the EU added together.
China’s economy is also very internationally integrated. Its market exerts a magnetic pull on many countries around the globe. As Professor Mahbubani has stressed – most countries want good relations with the US and China but few will willingly choose the US over China. It is also the case that the US has severely damaged its reputation for decency, reliability and democracy. This matters as prospective allies weigh up which way to go – US or China.
Wolf thinks the US can mount a fight back. Let’s consider his arguments. First, he pleads with the US to revitalise its democracy, its economy and its technological autonomy and to reinfuse its scientific and technological infrastructure with talented immigrants. Second, Wolf urges the US to defend the core values of adherence to truth and freedom of speech and prevent China, as Wolf sees it, from picking off smaller countries one by one. Third, the US also needs to refurbish the institutions of the global economy and strengthen multilateral ties that, he believes, will tie China to Western democratic norms. Fourthly, the US has to define its core values which it must be prepared to defend with force.
The first – the US must revitalise its democracy. Little chance. Biden won the Election but Trump won 75m votes – an enormous number. Trump is not going away and, in any event, he has people ready to take over his destructive right-wing agenda. The US with its intense cycle of elections every two years will prevent the US from achieving the calm, detached attention to politics that Wolf so desperately desires. The US remains unstable.
Second – the US must adhere to basic norms of freedom and truth. Many central and progressive-minded people heaved a sigh of relief when Biden won and Trump lost, but the US will never develop the inner strength and resolve to face up to China. China knows how to handle the complexities of world affairs. Its Belt and Road Initiative has signed up 130 countries and its economy, quicker than any other ranking economy, has really surged forward in 2020. China is more stable, more prosperous and more in harmony. And China is more experienced in world affairs than any other country. Its leadership is not the faceless apparatchiks of the old USSR but well-educated meritocrats who have risen to the top on ability and performance – and not on favouritism. Consider for a moment what it means to raise 500m citizens out of poverty.
Third, the US wants to resume its leading position in world affairs but times have moved on. The United Nations and the World Health Organisation are not controlled by the US. Trump’s America First policy entailed withdrawal from front line involvement in many world institutions. At the same time, China has signed up to trade deals and pacts with many countries including the EU and SE Asia in addition to its Belt and Road international outreach. Countries will look at Biden and wonder what will follow him. The same countries look at Xi and know what will follow him – more of the same.
Fourthly, says Wolf, the US has to re-define its core values and, if necessary, go to war in defence of them. This is a brave, even foolhardy, statement from Wolf and some will look forward to watching him march down Whitehall, waving banners in support of US military intervention as television replays film of families destroyed by misplaced bombs
The truth is that Wolf has got it wrong. The US cannot resume its leading role. It is on the decline and it has problems at home where the bottom 50% of its people have seen their standard of living fall in the last thirty years. China is rising and the US is dropping back. But China will never become the new superpower or the new Imperialism. Its future depends not on rapacious ownership of world raw materials but on continuing prosperity and stability. People will come to understand Xi’s win-win policy of international relations. It is and will continue to be, about mutual benefit, not one-sided domination.