25 July 2020   Leave a comment

Adam Tooze has written an intelligent and cogent analysis of US-China relations for the London Review of Books. One should compare this analysis with the shrill and insipid analysis of US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, who delivered a Cold War-like view of China in a speech entitled “Communist China and the Free World’s Future”. There is probably no more complex problem in international relations than the need for dominant powers to adjust to a rising power that previously been considered not central to the equilibrium of the international system. Britain, France, and Russia failed miserably in addressing the rise of Germany (the Franco-Prussian War, 1870, World War I, and World War II). After 1945, the US decided to integrate Germany into the international system, for largely self-interested reasons.

The Clinton and Obama Administrations tried to welcome China into the international system, but President Trump has decided instead to isolate China and the rising tensions between the two states has been destabilizing and unsettling. Richard Haass has written a very powerful critique of Trump’s strategy for the Washington Post. And Tooze does an excellent job of putting the Trump Administration China policy in context:

“On the American side the reassessment of US-China relations began nearly ten years ago, during Obama’s first term, when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state. Clinton had taken a close interest in Chinese affairs as far back as the 1990s, when she was first lady. In 2011, as secretary of state, she initiated the pivot to Asia of the navy’s carrier groups, the most conspicuous weapons in the US strategic arsenal. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an obscure trade pact in which America had until then shown little interest, was refashioned as a tool for containing China. If Clinton had been elected president in 2016, the relationship with China would doubtless have been at the heart of her foreign policy. She would have personified continuity in the US position, but under any administration the remarkable growth of China’s economy would have warranted a new strategic response, as would President Xi’s regime, which since 2012 has promoted the pre-eminence of the Chinese Communist Party, an intolerance of ideological pluralism, a forceful assertion of Chinese sovereignty and a capacious new vision of China’s role in the world.

“Donald Trump’s unexpected election victory changed the debate by putting the spotlight back on the US. The Trump presidency is a Rorschach blot onto which analysts project their diagnosis of a crisis that is as much American as Sino-American. Self-critical American liberals see the Trump presidency as the result of the derailment of US globalisation policy, above all in relation to China: blue-collar resentment, stoked by unbalanced trade, put Trump in office. Meanwhile, Trump and his team put the blame for the China crisis on their predecessors in the Obama, Bush and Clinton administrations. For hawks, such as the US trade representative Robert Lighthizer and Trump’s favourite economic adviser, Peter Navarro, the question is why the effort to enrol China in the world economy was undertaken in the first place, and who benefited from an experiment that has gone so badly wrong.

“The crude Trumpian take, which is perhaps also the kindest, is that the US negotiators of the 1990s and early 2000s were chumps, suckered by the Chinese. The more sophisticated version is that Bill Clinton’s team were too committed to the kind of modernisation theory Frances Fukuyama spun in his ‘end of history’ essay in 1989. They believed the liberal story that as China’s economy matured it would inevitably develop a need for the rule of law and representative democracy. If the Communist regime refused this logic and clung to its old ways, the laws of social science would condemn it to economic stagnation. Either way America had nothing to fear.”

Tooze does a good job of putting the Clinton-Obama policies in a good light. There is little question that many US jobs were exported to China, and that economic pain was enough to stimulate the surge of populism that placed Trump in the White House via the archaic Electoral College. But there were other ways the US could have address that economic pain.

“Thanks to the painstaking work of labour economists we can trace, county by county, the impact of Chinese imports and the loss of factory jobs across the US. The evidence of the shock is clear enough, but so too are its modest proportions. High-side estimates put the total number of jobs lost in the US because of Chinese imports at 2.5 million, which is little more than 2 per cent of the workforce. To describe this as ‘American carnage’ is a dramatic rhetorical inflation. The significant fact, though, is that 2.5 million amounts to 20 per cent of the manufacturing labour force. These were the fabled well-paid manual jobs that stand for the vanished American dream of blue-collar prosperity.

“Given the resources of American government, a shock on this scale could have been cushioned through spending on welfare, education, reinvestment and relocation. But that would have required creative politics, which is precisely what has been obstructed by the Republicans. Instead the problem wasn’t addressed, unleashing a pervasive status anxiety among lower-middle-class and working-class white Americans, especially men. It was in the counties where the highest number of jobs were lost because of the China shock that Trump scored best in the 2016 election. There wasn’t a huge national swing in electoral terms, any more than the China shock was a huge national labour market crisis. But thanks to the rickety construction of America’s 18th-century constitution, all that Trump needed to do to win the presidency was exploit a series of concentrated local crises.”

The danger of the Trump China policy is that it has raised military tensions in the South China Sea, over Taiwan, over the products of Huawei, and the human rights of people in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang. If President Trump is not re-elected in November, then the first order of business for the Biden Administration is to return to the process of encouraging the Chinese to support the multilateral institutions of the post-1945 world.

Posted July 25, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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