Conflict or Cooperation in US-China Relations?

by Lawrence Wittner

Cross-posted from LA Progressive

The United States and China, the world’s mightiest military and economic powers, are currently heading toward a Cold War or even a hot one, with disastrous consequences.  But an alternative path is available and could be taken.

Beginning in 2018, U.S. government policy toward China turned sharply hostile, bringing relations between the two nations to their lowest point in the last four decades.  The Trump administration fostered military confrontations with China in the South China Sea, initiated a trade war with the Asian nation, blamed China for the COVID-19 pandemic, and sharply denounced its human rights record.  In a July 2020 public address, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for “a new alliance of democracies” to resist China, declaring:  “The free world must triumph over this new tyranny.”

For the most part, the Biden administration has continued this hard-line policy.  Soon after taking office in 2021, U.S. officials stepped up political and military engagement with Taiwan, which China considers part of its territory, while Secretary of State Antony Blinken used his first meeting with Chinese officials to publicly berate China.  At the beginning of June, the U.S. Senate passed the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, explicitly designed to compete with China by pumping hundreds of billions of dollars into advanced U.S. technology.  This action followed the release of a proposed Pentagon budget that identified China as “the greatest long-term challenge to the United States.”  Promising to “prioritize China” as the U.S. adversary, the Defense Department called for heightened funding to upgrade U.S. “forces, global posture, and operational concepts” by “investing in cutting edge technologies that will deliver new warfighting advantages to our forces.” 

One of the new U.S. warfighting marvels is the hypersonic missile, which, although still in the development phase, has already attracted billions of dollars in funding from the U.S. government. The missile travels faster than five times the speed of sound, has greater maneuverability than other nuclear-armed missiles, and can strike the Chinese mainland.

The United States and China have developed unprecedented military might, and a conventional war could easily spiral into a catastrophic military conflict.

The Chinese government has not shied away from confrontation, either.  Xi Jinping, taking office in 2012 as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and, in 2013, as President of China, has launched his nation on a more assertive, nationalist course in world affairs.  This has included turning disputed islands in the South China Sea into Chinese military bases and steadily building up Chinese military forces.  The latter have been employed for dangerous confrontations with U.S. warships in the South China Sea and for flights into Taiwan’s airspace.  Thanks to a robust research program, China has successfully tested both medium range and intercontinental hypersonic missiles.  Moreover, ignoring external criticism, Xi’s government has clamped down on dissidentsimprisoned over a million Uyghurs in “reeducation camps,” and crushed the democracy movement in Hong Kong.

The dangers of this growing confrontation are enormous.  The United States and China have developed unprecedented military might, and a conventional war could easily spiral into a catastrophic military conflict.  Even if war were averted, their escalating arms race, which already accounts for more than half the world’s military expenditures, would be a colossal waste of resources.  Furthermore, a major conflict between these two nations with the world’s largest economiesinterlocked through investment and trade, could trigger a global economic collapse.

Fortunately, though, there is plenty of opportunity on the world scene for the United States and China to cooperate and, thereby, not only avert disaster, but serve their common interests.

Avoiding climate catastrophe is certainly a key area in which they would be well-served by cooperation.  Not only are the people of China and the United States threatened by climate change, but, as the two nations are the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, they can make or break world climate agreements. 

Cooperation is also essential when it comes to prevention of infectious diseases.  The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed how easily disease can spread and disrupt the lives of people around the world and, particularly, how no nation is safe until all are safe.  In this area, too, it is vital to mobilize the advanced medical and scientific resources of the United States and China in a cooperative effort to safeguard global health.

Update: New Essays on U.S. Foreign Policy & Resource Guide Website

by Roger Peace

Three new essays have been added to the U.S. Foreign Policy History & Resource Guide website:  “Introduction:  The Fifth Estate” by Roger Peace (http://peacehistory-usfp.org/intro); “The U.S. and World War II” by Jeremy Kuzmarov and Roger Peace (http://peacehistory-usfp.org/ww2); and “Africa and the War on Terror” by Elizabeth Schmidt (http://peacehistory-usfp.org/africa-wot).  The website, now with 13 essays, is an open resource educational website, established in 2016 and sponsored by the Historians for Peace and Democracy and the Peace History Society.     

How is history written?  Why do historians differ in their interpretations?  What are the main differences in writing the history of U.S. foreign relations?  These are questions answered in “Introduction: The Fifth Estate.”  The title conveys the idea that the history profession has a responsibility to the public to question official rationales, search out the truth, and present an accurate and honest accounting of the past – in the interest of democratic accountability.  

The Second World War is popularly remembered as “the good war” in American history, an heroic struggle against fascist totalitarian states.  Typically overlooked is the U.S. policy of appeasement toward fascism during the interwar years, a policy well-documented in U.S. governmental records.  Also overlooked is the role of U.S.-based corporations in Nazi Germany, including General Motors, Ford, Standard Oil Company, IBM, and Chase Manhattan Bank.  Though the war was necessary to stop the genocidal Nazi regime, the U.S. kept a tight lid on immigration of Jews from Europe during the interwar years.  Other features of interest include the predominant role of the Soviet Union in defeating Nazi Germany, the “race war” in the Pacific, the mass internment of Japanese American citizens and residents during the war, the shift in U.S. policy to mass civilian bombing, and the Truman administration’s decision to use atomic bombs.  Seven out of eight top U.S. military commanders believed that the use of atomic bombs was unnecessary from a strategic-military vantage point.  

“To understand the war on terror in Africa, it must be placed in historical context,” writes Elizabeth Schmidt, author of Foreign Intervention in Africa after the Cold War: Sovereignty, Responsibility, and the War on Terror (2018), and Foreign Intervention in Africa: From the Cold War to the War on Terror (2013).  Schmidt offers a cogent analysis of how U.S. leaders mislabeled disparate civil disturbances in African countries as “terrorism,” then emphasized military “solutions.”  Rather than reduce terrorism, U.S. military actions strengthened autocratic regimes, exacerbated human rights abuses, and undermined the goals they purported to promote.  Schmidt also dispels some common misconceptions about Islam, noting that the vast majority of Muslims worldwide condemn terrorism. 

If interested in assisting in the website in research, writing, or outreach, please contact me (rcpeace3@embarqmail.com)

– Roger Peace, website initiator and coordinator

Nationalism on the Decline

by Lawrence Wittner

Cross-posted from Peace & Health Blog https://peaceandhealthblog.com/2021/07/02/nationalism-on-the-decline/#more-5410

Although, beginning in about 2015, nationalist political parties made enormous advances in countries around the world, more recently they have been on the wane.

The nationalist surge was led by a new generation of rightwing populist demagogues who, feeding on public discontent with widespread immigration and economic stagnation, achieved startling political breakthroughs.  Matteo Salvini of Italy, Geert Wilders of the Netherlands, and Marine Le Pen of France catapulted their fringe political movements into major party status.  In Britain, Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) startled mainstream parties by winning a referendum calling for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.  Donald Trump, championing an “America First” policy, shocked political pundits by emerging victorious in the 2016 U.S. presidential race.  Two years later, in Brazil, the flamboyant Jair Bolsonaro, campaigning under the slogan “Brazil Above Everything,” was easily elected president of his country.  In May 2019, Narendra Modi’s BJP, a Hindu nationalist party, won a landslide election victory in India.

As the acknowledged leader of the rightwing, nationalist uprising in these and other nations, Trump forged close contacts with his overseas counterparts and pulled the U.S. government out of international treaties, as well as out of global institutions.  “Wise leaders always put the good of their own people and their own country first,” he admonished the UN General Assembly in September 2019.  “The future does not belong to globalists.  The future belongs to patriots.”

But, even as he spoke, the nationalist momentum was beginning to falter.  

In Europe, every nationalist political success during 2019 was matched by a defeat. Although, in Spain, the small, anti-immigrant Vox Party gained seats, in Austria, the nationalist Freedom Party experienced major setbacks, while Britain’s once-powerful UKIP and Greece’s rabid Golden Dawn movement virtually disappeared.  Meanwhile, in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s nationalist party suffered stinging election defeats in the nation’s three largest cities.

Things went further downhill for the nationalists in 2020.  A loss by Modi’s BJP in Delhi that February added to its string of regional election defeats.  In Italy, Salvini’s Northern League suffered an election rout and the center-left Democratic Party replaced it in the coalition government.  Meanwhile, in France, Le Pen’s National Rally party went down to a resounding defeat in the July 2020 local elections and, in November, Brazil’s Bolsonaro was humiliated when most of the candidates he campaigned for failed to win election.  Perhaps the most significant nationalist defeat occurred that November in the United States, where Trump lost his presidential re-election campaign by 7 million votes and his radicalized Republican Party failed to recapture the House of Representatives, which it had lost in 2018.

This year, the nationalist defeats have turned into a rout.  In January, Trump’s Republicans lost special Senate elections, ending their party’s control of the U.S. Senate.  In March, Erdogan’s political control of Turkey crumbled still further, as polls found support for his nationalist party slipping dramatically.  This May, Modi’s BJP lost another regional election.  

Much the same occurred this June.  In Germany, where the nationalist Alternative for Germany was projected to score an upset victory in a state election, it drew a disappointing 20.8 percent of the vote—not much more than half the percentage garnered by the Christian Democratic victors and considerably less than the total secured by the leftwing parties.  In Brazil, clear signs emerged that the Bolsonaro regime, with record unpopularity, was tottering toward collapse.  Finally, in France, where Marine Le Pen’s party was predicted to have a good chance of triumphing in six of the country’s 13 regional elections, it ended up defeated in every one of them.

As the nationalist tide has receded, governments have turned to reviving the international institutions and agreementsbattered during the previous years.  These include the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the Paris Climate Accords, and key nuclear disarmament agreements.  In another sign of their willingness to engage in global action, major governments have proposed a global minimum tax on corporations.

How can this change in the fortunes of nationalist parties be explained?

One factor behind the political turnabout is that the style, policies, and behavior of some of the leading nationalist politicians set off alarm bells in the minds of many people and political parties about authoritarianism, and even fascism.  Some of these politicians, in fact, displayed fascist tendencies and, also, encouraged violent, rightwing action by their supporters.  Consequently, uneasy voters and parties, anxious to preserve democracy and political freedom, were willing to make political compromises, such as uniting behind the most electable alternative to the nationalist candidate.

A deeper reason, though, is that, in a world faced with global problems such as a disease pandemic, climate catastrophe, a nuclear arms race, and economic inequality, a nationalist approach doesn’t make much sense.  Recognizing this, most of the public gravitates toward global solutions.  A Pew Research Center poll in the summer of 2020 found that 81 percent of the 14,276 people interviewed in 14 nations thought that “countries around the world should act as part of a global community that works together to solve problems.”  Some 76 percent approved of the role of the United Nations in promoting human rights and 74 percent in promoting peace, while 63 percent said that the WHO had done a good job handling the COVID-19 crisis.

Of course, despite the recent setbacks experienced by nationalist parties, they are far from dead.  They have succeeded in establishing themselves as part of the political landscape and today govern a variety of countries, including Brazil, Hungary, India, Poland, and Turkey.  In the United States, the Trump-dominated Republican Party controls numerous state governments and stands a reasonable chance of recapturing control of the federal government.

Even so, the political tide has recently turned against nationalism and, consequently, possibilities have re-emerged for addressing global problems on a global basis.

[Dr. Lawrence Wittner (https://www.lawrenceswittner.com/ ) is Professor of History Emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press).]