Pacific Dialogue
Prospects for the Sino-U.S. relationship: a Marxist perspective
  ·  2022-11-29  ·   Source: Web Exclusive


This is an edited version of Josef Gregory Mahoney’s speech during a webinar on Sino-U.S. relations and global governance hosted by CICG Americas on November 22. Josef Gregory Mahoney is Professor of Politics and International Relations at East China Normal University and Senior Research Fellow with the Institute for the Development of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics at Southeast University.

Part I Historicizing the present 

To provide a broader context for my comments on China-U.S. relations, I would like to begin with eight points that answer the Marxist dictum—always historicize. 

First, many of us live in societies we perceive as belonging to relatively advanced, post-ideological, and highly rational civilizations. While many of us regularly encounter micro-aggressions, more than a few are victims of violent crime, while wars still occur on the periphery, our lives in or near the center appear more secure. The prospect of war is quite difficult for us to imagine, let alone grasp—in large measure because war appears so irrational and uncivilized, the antithesis of our current psychosocial senses of self. 

Second, however, studies indicate that modern societies up to the present are not less violent than those experienced by our ancestors. Furthermore, while being part of a larger population with a better social organization can offer more protection than smaller and less advanced groups, there are also serious risks associated with large populations. 

Third, we live in a new era, one beset with increasing, intersecting and even existential crises, including climate change and extreme weather; food, water, and energy insecurity; novel disease outbreaks; financial crises; and rising geopolitical tensions including the conflict in Ukraine. It’s popular to refer to these as “black swan” events, as dramatic exceptions to the norm, and yet both a plurality of scientists and many key political leaders warn otherwise. Consequently, this new era requires improved cooperation; yet, presently, the opposite is happening. As Charles Kupchan at the Council on Foreign Relations said recently, “We are now in a ‘New World,’ “after the end of the post-Cold War era… We’re back in a global landscape in which there is a militarized rivalry between the West and Russia. And that rivalry is now extending to China.” 

Fourth, there are direct correlations between the rise of nationalism, capitalism and the industrial revolution and the onset of the Anthropocene [an unofficial unit of geologic time, used to describe the most recent period in Earth’s history when human activity started to have a significant impact on the planet’s climate]. This is to say that the combination of Western-led modernization-produced climate change and global warming, along with various schemes that suppressed and appropriated tremendous wealth from the Global South, injustices and inequalities that persist and that are at risk for worsening given the degradation of the global environmental commons, is likely to suppress the development and leave many areas more vulnerable to rising challenges. These challenges include new outbreaks. There also are increasing indications that COVID-19, like many other novel disease outbreaks, correlates with climate change. There is compelling evidence that centuries of war, imperialism, hegemony, exploitation, and environmental degradation, all still ongoing, have always depended and continue to depend on “systemic violence.” As one American Marxist scholar once described it, “We have our head in the clouds of the 21st century but our feet in the 19th.” Further, is it not also the case, again from a Marxist perspective, that every commodity we produce and consume represents a fetishized violence against ourselves and others? Is it not the case that the 20th century was a “beastly century”—as described by British novelist Margaret Drabble—one that was defined by two world wars, the Cold War, and innumerable smaller conflicts that by some estimates accounted for more than a quarter of a billion deaths? Did we suddenly become more civilized and less violent, systemic or otherwise, in 2001? Is it not the case that post-September 11, 2001, the U.S. military-industrial-academic-government complex returned to if not exceeded Cold War levels, driving U.S. policy down increasingly narrow paths while robbing the nation of reinvestment, renewal, and self-development? Is it not the case that the U.S. then embarked on two decades of war and occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan, destabilizing the Middle East and Central Asia, while also advancing NATO onto Russia’s borders and destabilizing Europe, while also failing to manage fiscal, monetary, health and social welfare in the U.S. itself, thereby creating systemic contagions and global crises, including the U.S.-instigated Global Financial Crisis in 2008? Is it not the case that despite having the higher per-capita emission and by far the highest gross historical emissions, U.S. policy has gravely undermined global climate change cooperation at least five times, first by withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001, then by withdrawing from the Paris Agreement in 2017, then gravely undermining U.S. and global capacity by failing to address the pandemic at home or abroad, then by provoking conflict in Ukraine, and finally by provoking a cessation of cooperation with China by undermining the one-China policy? Instead of cooperation, is it not the case that today the U.S. speaks deterministically of “great power competition,” decoupling, a new cold war, the “Thucydides trap” and the “coming war” on China? 

Fifth, the psychological phenomenon of denial or denialism is common and well-understood as a defense mechanism experienced by most, if not all, of us. In short, people often deny simple facts and mounting risks, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Those experiencing clear symptoms of potentially fatal medical conditions often delay seeking emergent care because they are unable emotionally to accept the possibility they have a life-threatening condition. A generation ago many denied smoking causes cancer. Today, there are large numbers of people, including Americans who deny evolution, climate change, and the risks associated with outbreaks like COVID-19. And shortly before the first bombs fell, reports indicated that only 20 percent of Ukrainians believed a conflict was coming. While war between the US and China is not inevitable, to what extent do we experience denialism despite overwhelming evidence the US is already provoking conflict and increasing it?

Sixth, polls indicate 81 percent of Americans believe in God, more than half believe in a coming apocalypse (sooner or later), and a significant number believe we are already living in the end times, with climate change and disease outbreaks offering Biblical signs that Judgement Day is nearing. Studies indicate there are direct correlations between religious conviction and climate change, COVID-19 and vaccine denialism, among others. The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas once remarked that such recourse to faith demonstrates violence against rational thought, but he also wondered, as did Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Martin Heidegger, whether “reason” and “rationalism” in its modern Western forms, including scientism, are also the predicates of violence against the self and others. Is it likely the U.S. is unable to envision win-win solutions with China because it realizes its privileges stem from zero-sum practices and the normalization of systemic violence, including systemic violence against its own people? Is this why the U.S. also denies the possibility of peaceful coexistence with any country that can resist U.S. hegemony, and indeed on many occasions has resorted to military force to coerce compliance? Is it not also the case that the U.S. continues to experience significant increases in violent crimes, including homicides and suicides, plus drug and alcohol abuse, that all combined have produced significant decreases in life expectancy coupled with recent studies suggesting large-scale cognitive declines associated with long-term effects of COVID-19? Is it not the case that the American middle class has been eroding since the 1980s, and that discrimination and violence directed against minorities remain high and, in some cases, increasing astronomically? Is it not the case that these problems have worsened along with increasing political polarization and political dysfunction in the United States (in fact, we saw similar developments in Russia before and following the collapse of the Soviet Union), along with growing efforts to decouple from China, producing a nation where domestic and foreign policies are increasingly schizoid if not irrational? Is it reasonable to theorize that dealing with the United States means dealing with an irrational actor that can’t even be expected to act reliably in its own national self-interest? Is it not the case that Rome’s decline and collapse prefaced the Dark Ages when European society lost much of its science and human development took huge steps backward there? Are we seeing something similar in the U.S. today? 

Seventh, we live in an era of increasing American anxiety and bunkerization. In the post-Cold War era this phenomenon became most apparent in peripheral areas where international aid workers were increasingly at risk due to rising tensions and conflicts.  However, these insecurities have also penetrated the center, including the U.S., particularly after 9/11, the Global Financial Crisis, and the global pandemic.  In both domestic and foreign affairs, Americans are more vulnerable than before, producing two types of responses above all others: aggressive engagements and bunkerization, two related phenomena that are at the heart of reinvigorating similar thinking and behavior commonplace during the Cold War.  Indeed, read through a critical lens, Graham Allison’s Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap speaks directly to the fear and anxiety faced by a dominant power vis-à-vis a rising one. In short, Americans are afraid, confused, and well-armed, against each other and foreign adversaries, real or imagined. Polarized and entrenched, they are unable and unwilling to change or substantially alter their political or economic systems except in reactionary ways designed to preserve American privileges. The CHIPS legislation, bloc-building, and so on, are all symptomatic of these two trends. 

Eighth, without question, China benefited immensely from building positive relations with the U.S., starting in the early 1970s and accelerating in the reform and opening-up period, and despite current tensions, China still benefits from a high level of bilateral trade along with various instruments created substantially by the U.S., including the World Trade Organization. It’s impossible to account for the overwhelming number of American influences seen in China today, with a great number of them having proven instrumentally valuable to China’s rise. It is also the case that many Americans welcomed China’s development, and did so from a truly progressive, non-transactional point of view. And it’s certainly the case that trying to maintain positive relations now remains vital to China’s security and economic well-being. However, while there have long been win-win exchanges, American policy towards China since the Nixon Administration has always been transactional and exploitative. Early engagements were driven by strategic self-interest given America’s Cold War conflict with the Soviet Union. Later, the U.S. wanted access to China’s cheap labor, massive market, and opportunities for offshore pollution through overseas manufacturing. Throughout, U.S. policymakers presumed the U.S. would remain dominant—that a rising China would transform its political system to better match American liberalism or risk declines (i.e., the “end of history” plus “collapse thesis”); or should China’s rise produce a revisionist power intent on transforming an international system headed by the U.S. (i.e., the “threat thesis”), that American technological and military superiority and advanced capacity for innovation would prove more than sufficient for preserving America’s privileged position. For a variety of reasons, including China’s achievements and the fact that its political system didn’t collapse or radically change, plus America’s relative and in some cases absolute declines, as well as China’s efforts to push back against U.S. unilateralism, the “threat thesis” is now dominant. This development plus the challenges associated with climate change, the pandemic, the conflict with Russia and a host of systemic problems in the U.S. has produced reinforced a new era of American aggression and bunkerization. In short, the U.S. is digging in and lashing out. A common conclusion among Marxist thinkers, including Karl Marx himself, is that power resists surrendering voluntarily. Instead, many will fight to the bitter end despite overwhelming evidence they will fail. Why they choose to keep fighting is not some kind of mysterious motivation, nor are the likely consequences. 

Part Prospects for China-U.S. relations  

Double-Speak, “management,” and aggressive containment: U.S.-approaches to China  

On the one hand, the U.S. repeatedly reaffirms the one-China policy, as Joe Biden did again in Bali during his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on November 14, in the lead-up to the G20 summit. Biden says the U.S. does not seek a new cold war or regime change. Previously, the U.S. spoke of “managing China’s rise;” and Biden now speaks of “managing” the relationship. While these expressions have always smacked on paternalism, they are not wholly negative. Further, Biden often speaks positively of cooperating on climate change and other areas where interests align. 

On the other hand, from Barack Obama’s pivot to Donald Trump’s trade war and ethnic vitriol to Biden’s AUKUS. and National Security Strategy, America’s efforts to contain and maim are clear. The U.S. encourages separatism, with a new determination, to weaken Chinese security and sovereignty. The U.S. sells nuclear submarines to Australia and upgrades an airbase there to accommodate nuclear attack-capable B52 bombers. The U.S. concedes U.S. forces are in Taiwan along with longstanding forces in the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Japan, and others throughout Asia. The U.S. is upgrading an advanced weapons system in the ROK, contributing to regional instability, and encouraging a new era of Japanese nationalism and militarism. The U.S. has advanced small-bloc building efforts including AUKUS and the Quad against China, each country with none-too-subtle links with Taiwan. The U.S. has moved to expand NATO’s mission to include countering China and encouraged European countries to follow U.S. policies, including tech decoupling. Biden has not reversed Trump’s trade war; rather, he’s advanced a tech decoupling policy on chips that’s so extreme that some have likened it to a major advance in economic warfare, aiming to cripple China’s hi-tech economic development and national security. As one prominent analyst described it, the CHIPS legislation is, “strangling with the intent to kill,” and as another put it, Biden shows that he’s now “all-in against China.” Furthermore, Biden spoke only tepidly against Pelosi’s visit to Taipei and moved a carrier group to support her. He’s sent high-level officials of his own administration to the island, and his military leaders have spoken recently and repeatedly of imminent “Chinese plans” to attack. U.S. forces continue aggressive engagements on China’s coastline and in the South China Sea, including crashing a nuclear submarine into a nearby seamount, imperiling the entire region with a possible nuclear catastrophe. Meanwhile, Biden has tried to entice other countries, including the Philippines, Viet Nam, and Singapore into strategic alliances against China. The U.S. has invited or held major joint military exercises with India directed against China. It’s repeatedly accused China falsely of political tyranny and even genocide, demonizing China in international media and global public opinion. It portrays China as an international aggressor determined to replace the U.S. as a global hegemon in a clear example of a self-serving double standard that runs completely contrary to all available evidence. 

Is China-U.S. cooperation possible–and desirable?  

On the one hand, it’s clear that international cooperation is necessary to avoid new conflicts and to instead address mounting existential crises, including climate change, and the Biden Administration has signaled several times this is an area where the U.S. is willing to cooperate. 

On the other hand, it’s also clear that both the cause and continued inability to address climate change arises almost entirely from competitive nationalism and zero-sum thinking. There are hints that the U.S. and perhaps other countries are no longer cooperating in good faith, including on matters like climate change, because we have already reached a tipping point, perhaps a point of no return, given repeated failures to address global warming, worsened by the pandemic and the conflict in Ukraine. Perhaps the focus is now on recovery at any cost and an endgame: Perhaps we are now seeing the outlines of geostrategic repositioning for a future where the ravages of climate change are already a foregone conclusion. 

While it can be argued the U.S. is in some respects a rational actor in terms of its efforts to contain China, and indeed, that we might have already reached a tipping point requiring repositioning, aggressive American actions are not only likely to fail to achieve their objectives, they’re likely to contribute to a domino effect of other failures and animosities that are damaging to everyone, including the U.S. This indicates U.S. policy is less rational than irrational, even if the U.S. calculates it’s less vulnerable to climate change than China is, even if the U.S. has calculated that what appears increasingly to be “desperation tactics” are better than simply surrendering its hegemony for the greater good. One wonders if a country that has become so socially schizoid in its domestic affairs correlates with it becoming more schizophrenic in its foreign affairs. Given America’s performance in Afghanistan and other theaters of direct and indirect engagement, the catastrophic U.S. response to the pandemic, and the global dangers associated with the U.S. proxy war in Ukraine, we should no longer assume the U.S. is an advanced country capable of responsible leadership. We should not expect U.S. policies to be stable from one presidential election to the next, or even one midterm to the next. We should consider the possibility that the old image of U.S. superiority as being little more than the sort of polished mediocrity that currently haunts American political and academic circles—not unlike those seen in declining ancient regimes of yesteryear. Can Beijing cooperate with a country that is unstable, irrational, and trying to harm China? Unlikely, and certainly not substantially. 

What are the short-term and long-term prospects for bilateral relations?   

On the one hand, some point to recent positives, including the Xi-Biden meeting in Bali, the prospects of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visiting Beijing in the near term, as indications that China-U.S. relations have reached a “floor”—that they are unlikely to get worse and might instead improve. The meeting of China’s minister of defense and the U.S. secretary for defense on November 22 in Cambodia has also been taken as an encouraging sign. Furthermore, a new government in Australia has taken a softer tone, and a new government in Germany has continued that country’s positive engagement. France’s Emmanuel Macron also met with Xi in Bali. It might be the case that the U.S. was pressing hard in part to destabilize Xi’s position ahead of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, and having failed that, having achieved as much as possible on other fronts, Washington is now seeking to consolidate its gains and manage forward without additional, major provocations. Further, some analysts believe the West is winning against Russia, and this will make engagement with China easier to accept, and China will likewise be more amenable to Western concerns if Russia fails in Ukraine. 

On the other hand, the primary source of U.S. vulnerability remains its aggression as a global hegemon, which perpetually encounters resistance and the systemic political, economic, and social fault lines that continue to worsen, driving intense polarization and further eroding the capacity for effective governance at home and abroad. Furthermore, Biden is weaker after the midterms and will likely gravitate to foreign policy to exercise power ahead of seeking reelection, and both political parties will compete to see who can be “tougher” against China. Given continued U.S. declines, given U.S. political dysfunction, given both short and long-term strategic goals, the various aggressive containment tactics already directed against China with many more expected, the question of whether the U.S. can be regarded as rational and acting in good faith, the prospects for bilateral relations are quite poor. Neither a Russian defeat nor a win in Ukraine is likely to change things. Indeed, Biden has made it clear his primary concern is China; a Western win in Ukraine will embolden U.S. hegemony in Europe and the prospect holds the U.S. will try to repeat similar tactics against China. 

How can China improve relations with the U.S.?  

On the one hand, there are areas where China can improve relations with the U.S. Reestablishing mechanisms for official exchange, which were suspended almost entirely under Trump, should be a priority. There is no harm in talking, above all when it comes to climate change and military-to-military communication, given the fact not talking can cause clear harm. While it’s reasonable for China to question the value of these exchanges, while it’s clear that these kinds of engagements play into the American tactic of trying to appear to “responsibly manage” the relationship with China, while it’s clear this is what the U.S. wants while it harms Chinese interests elsewhere, while it’s clear that China’s principle of reciprocity and basic redlines are the bedrocks of its foreign policy, and fairly so, nevertheless, China can and should engage, and can do so increasingly on its own terms. Additionally, China can move past restrictive pandemic controls and once again open its borders, allowing for more political, business, academic and tourist exchanges, which more than anything will help push back against America’s gross mischaracterizations of China in the global public discourse, and likewise deepen trade relations. 

On the other hand, instead of focusing too much on the U.S., instead of being distracted by U.S. efforts to foster dysfunctional reactionary policymaking in Beijing, China above all can engage positively with other countries, for example, by improving relations with India, Viet Nam and even Australia. It can take a softer approach to the ROK and Japan without compromising sovereignty and security. China can also continue to leverage its rise, its global economic position, its vast market, its good governance, its equitable and globally supportive foreign policies, including the Belt and Road Initiative, Global Development Initiative, Global Security Initiative, and so on, to undercut American efforts to build anti-China alliances. China can also do a better job of “telling its story well,” and it can adjust its development model with the five features to ensure it does not repeat the worst aspect of Western development trends. China can continue to take constructive steps forward towards building a human community with a shared future, including building an ecological civilization at home and encouraging the same around the world. Indeed, undermining America’s containment strategy, repudiating America’s anti-China discourse, and making friends out of potential enemies is perhaps the best way to compel the U.S. to adjust how it engages with China. 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon  

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