By Jean-Pierre Page
Published on NCW, Apr 27, 2021
The Biden Administration appears to be implementing most of the recommendations in the Atlantic Council’s Longer Telegram: Toward a new American China strategy, an important strategic document about US policy towards China published in January 2021. This document is one of a troika produced by the Atlantic Council; the other two are Global Strategy 2021: An Allied Strategy for China, published in December 2020 with a preface by Joseph Nye, and The China plan: A transatlantic blueprint for strategic competition, published in March 2021.
A few weeks ago, the United States National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan questioned why China “essentially argues that the Chinese model is better than the American model. It points to the dysfunctions and divisions in the United States“. It was clearly incomprehensible to him. Trapped between naivety and certainty about themselves, a doubt has taken hold of a people who for two hundred years have been raised in the arrogance of their invincibility, exceptionality, divine planetary mission and a manifest destiny. The world is changing, the balance of power is no longer the same, but Joe Biden and his team seem to think and behave as if they are Alice in Wonderland.
US, making a big mistake
Speaking of China without taking Russia into account is Washington’s biggest mistake.
Both are now considered official adversaries of the United States, a position also pursued by the Atlantic Council, which goes against the realism of Henry Kissinger. Kissinger sought to counterbalance the two: when orchestrating US rapprochement with China in the 1970s, he argued that relations between the two should be stronger than the relations between Russia and China. Today we see that Washington is targeting both Russia and China simultaneously. The more Russia and China are attacked, the closer they get to each another.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, in his seminal book The Grand Chessboard, underlined the strategic importance of preventing the formation of antihegemonic alliances. Whereas an alliance between China and Russia should be feared, “…the most dangerous scenario would be a grand coalition of China, Russia and perhaps Iran, an “anti hegemonic” coalition, united not by ideology but by complementary grievances.” The important joint statement made by Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and China’s State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi on 22 March this year, just two days after the China-US Anchorage meeting, and the landmark China-Iran 25-year Strategic Cooperation Agreement signed five days later, are indications that such an alliance might be in the making. The Biden Administration should indeed think twice before characterising the balance of forces yet to come.
More than a cold war?
Can we characterise relations with China and Russia as a new ‘Cold War’?
Today, the Biden Administration sees China as the biggest threat to humanity in this century. This is much more than a cold war, it is war, full stop!
For both the Long Telegram of 1946, as well as The Longer Telegram, the enemy is Communism. The struggle is between two visions of the world order, the one based on unilateralism under US hegemony, the other on UN Charter-based multilateralism founded on the principle of sovereign equality between States. You have one of two options, “you are either with us or against us!”
An important aspect of The Longer Telegram and the other two Atlantic Council papers is that they are as ideological as George Keenan’s 1946 Long Telegram. Almost 75 years later, the approach has not changed, it is as though the United States is looking through the rear-view mirror.
Engineering radical “system change”
Ideologies, it is said, ended with the fall of the Berlin wall, and yet 30 years later, they have returned as the central tenet of Washington’s geopolitical strategy. Addressing the Munich Security Conference in February this year, Biden accused China of undermining “the foundations of the international economic system”. The challenge today for the US is no longer mere regime change in China but engineering radical “system change”.
In my opinion, there is a difference between Pompeo and the present US Administration on how China is to be handled. Whereas Pompeo’s was just an evangelist crusade, the Longer Telegram’s call is for intervention in the internal life of the Communist Party of China against what it ironically describes as “the revisionist orientation of the leadership” of Xi Jinping and his betrayal of the Thought of Deng Xiaoping.
The whole idea is to support the moderate tendency within the Communist Party against “the Maoist Xi Jinping”. Dogmatically, playing the role of prosecutor, the Atlantic Council affirms that the problem is Marxist Leninism, the Communist Party of China, and illiberalism.
Looking for a successful model
The problem for the US is that containing or rolling back China’s influence is simply impossible. Today, for reasons that are both internal and external, Washington must respond to the threat posed by China whose economy is riding high, even as the systemic crisis of capitalism clearly demonstrates that things are not moving in favour of the West. So, China and Russia have now become an internal problem. Even Jake Sullivan, the US National Security Advisor, has admitted that “many folks around the world are actually looking more at places like China than they are to the United States in terms of a successful model for governance and the economy.”
The reality is that the global balance of power is shifting and changing in favour of a multipolar world order in which not only anti-hegemonic alliances can be forged but which also reveals the inadequacies of neoliberal and financialized capitalism such that the United States has nothing to propose to its own people. It can only fight to retain an increasingly dysfunctional capitalism. It is today in the rear-guard not vanguard of history. Accelerating de-dollarization is only one, if major, symptom of this situation. US desperation in this context can only intensify.
US aims to torpedo BRI?
Torpedoing BRI first involves assembling a global coalition to combat China, including militarily, through greater involvement in NATO and in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the QUAD, also known as Southern NATO. Politically, the idea is to isolate China from the rest of Asia and torpedo the “Belt and Road Initiative”. However, that is going to be far from simple. The Belt and Road Initiative already involves 76 countries from different continents and represents US $ 1600 billion with no conditions attached. In comparison, America’s much touted post-war act of altruism, the Marshall Plan, represented a mere US $ 176 billion in 2020 prices, which, more than anything, was an export credit tied to important conditionalities making only a marginal contribution to Europe’s recovery.
At first, the Biden Administration’s attempts to rally its allies seemed to work. Biden’s first meeting with European leaders appeared to say little more than the boss is back in business. European leaders behaved like the subservient vassals they are, changing course from the recent advances they had made toward China and Russia, obediently bringing into Europe Washington’s anti-China campaign in exchange for US protection against an artificially created Russian threat.
The result has been China’s recent blacklisting of several European personalities for their systematic lies about the country. The decision to blacklist is a political not economic decision, very different from extraterritorial economic sanctions imposed by the West. Imagine the consequences had China demanded repayment of the huge US debt in treasury bonds, or had Russia imposed sanctions on Europe by refusing to export its gas and oil? Thirty percent of Europe’s gas consumption comes from Russia!
The authors of the various Atlantic Council long-term strategic plans would like US allies to believe that Washington is capable of, as suggested by Joseph Nye, “effectively using its hard and soft power to defend and strengthen a rules-based system. For the combined wealth of Western democracies – the United States, Europe and Japan – will far exceed that of China for much of the century”. This essentially is the Coué method that consists of convincing oneself that “every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better”. And yet the systemic crisis of capitalism that has been revealed even more brutally by the pandemic is far from over. Brexit, Washington’s dispute with Germany on Russian gas and Nord Stream2, and the intra-Atlantic conflict during the Trump Presidency all expose the contradictions between the US and its junior partners and raise questions about the solidity of the alliance.
At the same time, the Europeans are torn between their alliance with the US and their economic interests with China. Joe Biden’s ability to make economic, trade and military concessions to his allies is still to be seen, given that the US has not been known in recent decades to excel at it. As the recent NATO meeting has shown, the US proposes to support European security against an artificially created Russian threat, in exchange for Europe’s support for its crusade against China.
However, this will inevitably run up against contradictions as recently manifested at the videoconference between Xi Jinping, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. The EU and the China Investment Agreement (CAI) has been approved. With 425.5 billion euros at the third trimester of 2020, China has become the first trade partner of Europe before the United-States. In the same period the trade between Europe and the US has fallen of more than 10%. The high level of relations between Europe and China will definitely have consequences for Washington’s trade war against Beijing, and US economic sanctions will become more difficult to implement. The CAI Agreement is a very important step forward and a major political defeat for the Biden Administration. It will influence the US-Europe transatlantic partnership and give more space to Beijing in whatever negotiations it will have with Washington. That is why, it was crucial for Xi Jinping to conclude this important agreement at the beginning of the Biden Administration.
But there’s more. The other big issue is the relationship between the “Belt and Road initiative” (BRI) and Europe. The Chinese silk road is now an important reality in Europe and Washington is unable to influence it. Already, 17 European countries are involved in the BRI and hold a regular summit with China. An example is the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on air transport and the rapidly growing importance of rail freight between the Netherlands and China, which is expected to increase by 30% within the next three years. Now, container terminals such as those in the ports of Piraeus, Bilbao, and Valencia benefit from Chinese investments and close partnerships. Recently, Italy joined the Silk Road and signed cooperation accords with China to develop the ports of Genoa and Trieste. Germany is the most important beneficiary of the trade agreement between Europe and China. Portugal for the first time will see the opening of the Bank of China.
It is also possible to draw a parallel between Asia and Europe with regard to the Silk Road strategy and the control of maritime corridors, as shown with the important port infrastructure developments in Colombo and Hambatota in Sri Lanka or Gwadar in Pakistan. In November 2020, the world’s most important free trade agreement (RCEP) was signed between fifteen countries of the Pacific and Asia. It concerns a population of more than 2.2 billion people, 30% of the world GDP and includes Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and China. It is another historic milestone which clearly demonstrates that the balance of power has shifted in favour of multilateralism, sovereignty and cooperation. On the world’s chessboard, Washington is no longer master of the game!
Washington’s demonisation of China
As is customary with the Administrations of Democrats, Biden and the Longer Telegram harp on about human rights and a so-called ‘Rules-based International Order’. It is a well-known fact that human rights are a weapon in the hands of the US and its allies to advance America’s hegemonic agenda. It is this weaponization that explains Washington’s demonization of China with regard to Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, as also the attacks against Russia on Navalny, the US Presidential elections, or Ukraine and the Crimea.
When Washington speaks of respect for ‘rules’, it is not referring to the UN Charter or international law, but to rules defined and imposed unilaterally by the United States on the rest of the world. As the Longer Telegram declares, “We can provide a model, we can show the way!”
The problem with Washington’s ideological approach to China is the contradiction between rivalry and confrontation on the one hand, and the need to cooperate, on the other. The fact is that, unlike the original Cold War where there were nearly no economic relations between the US and USSR, the economic ties between the US and China are deeply intertwined to the former’s disadvantage. For instance, deindustrialisation has proceeded in the US thanks to US corporations outsourcing manufacturing to China. This makes any decoupling almost impossible.
The US is highly dependent on manufacturing in China. Recently, referring to combating the COVID-19 pandemic, the Deputy Secretary-General of the Council for National Security Policy Studies in China, General Qiao Liang, pointed out that the US has the patents, but not the capacity to produce ventilators. Of the 1,400 pieces needed to produce a ventilator, more than 1,100 are manufactured in China, which also handles the finishing process, “You may have high technology, but without a manufacturing industry how will you produce your technology and how will you support your dollar and your army?” Artificial Intelligence is another example, a sector where China spends US $ 70 billion a year in investment and the US, only US $ 11 billion. By 2035, China will become the leader in artificial intelligence
It is well known that Americans are archetypically impatient, arrogant and too sure of themselves, whereas the Chinese are not only patient, but have a vision coherent with a long civilisation and culture: they give time to time. It is appropriate that I conclude with a quote from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War: “War is like fire, when it is prolonged, it endangers those who provoked it.”
Jean-Pierre Page is a trade unionist, former member of the national executive Committee and head of the international department of the CGT. For the last 20 years he has been a member of the Central Committee of the French Communist Party. He is on the board of various research centres and in 1997 founded l’Observatoire de la Mondialisation with Susan George and François Chesnais. Page has also written several books including CGT: pour que les choses soient dites with a preface by Samir Amin (2019); Camarades, je demande la parole (2016); Réflexions sur la guerre en Yougoslavie; and L’empire attaque! on the war in Afghanistan. He is the editor of a theorical, anthropologic, philosophical cultural and political review “La pensée Libre”. His next book will be about fake news on China.