Americans don’t understand: China is not afraid of the US

Apr 26, 2024
China United States boxing gloves

China knows that, if it has to, it can stand alone and that it can defend itself. It knows, too, that most nations of the world, other than America (which is, despite itself, somewhat conflicted), want to do business with it; to connect with its growing confidence and with its strengthening brand of non-threatening, non-coercive, non-evangelistic power. Clearly, the Chinese are not afraid of the Americans. Just as clearly, the Americans don’t understand this.

They would give themselves a chance of understanding if they could just try to see China in terms other than of being a contender for America’s world heavyweight championship of dominance. Of seeing the Chinese more in terms of where they have come from and what they have had to deal with along their tortuous way – not least, earlier on, with the ravages of western imperialism and its compliant Kuomintang. The Americans, having expended such huge resources to become the champion can’t see China’s aspiration in terms of being anything other than their own – to be the champion – despite an abundance of indicators to the contrary. This is, really, too bad.

Championship or not, they do know that the Chinese are up to it; that they are not shaking in their boots, and that they, the Americans, dare not take things much further than doing a bit of the Ali shuffle and blowing hard.

All the signs are in fact that China, as ready as it is, doesn’t want a fight. Not at all. Not with anyone. Perhaps not even Taiwan. That its abiding goal is to carry on with its impressive successes for its people and their future. Such as in the mighty growth of its middle class from 39.1 million in 2000 to 707 million in 2018 (Pew Research Centre) – that is, over fifty percent of the world’s middle class, twice the total population of America and almost thirty times Australia’s. Such as with its progress in social cohesion (taking the West’s reportage on Hong Kong with a grain of salt), science, industry, innovation, trade, and, yes, diplomacy and weapons. Such as in not having to tend the extensive, damaging and costly front lines of the American model, let alone even having the ambition to get up to the kind of antics it would take them to get there. All the while keeping the Americans and their pals at bay with little more than a third of the American defence budget.

For its part, America would rather go on paying more and more to back up its posturing abroad than to figure out ways to deal with its crumbling social structures and its tottering brand of democracy at home. It would, still, rather stick to its stupid and costly intimidation playbook – the one in which itty bitty players like Australia cough up billions and billions of their taxpayers’ money to support America’s already massively overblown and profitable defence production industries.

Surely, we might wonder, the outcomes of American leadership against the massively outgunned likes of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, Syria and so on should have moved it at least a little towards finding alternatives to its belligerent fist shaking – especially with a power like China that is not bothered enough by this to shake its fist back. Well, no, they haven’t, not even in the instances of Crimea and Ukraine where it had the opportunity to exercise restraint, however uncharacteristically, in thumbing its nose and shaking its fist at Putin (see Gregory Clark, ‘Pearls and Irritations’).

China is, though, aware of the dangers of downplaying such posturing. It’s been there itself, though hardly on a scale comparable with that of the Americans. For them, since the mid-20th century, it did happen in Korea, where they had, though, clearly warned MacArthur not to cross the Yalu. And it’s been happening, of course, in relation to Taiwan – about which there is, though, a much deeper story than American posturing, since the time of Chiang Kai Shek, wanting to be told. In the essence of which any possibility of a Chinese accommodation of sovereignty for Taiwan has been seriously inhibited by the certainty that this would be paraded loud and long as an Americans victory.

The South China Sea? Well, the Chinese strategy there is really not that hard to understand.

It goes like this.

Although China is now much stronger, smarter, coherent and cohesive than not so long ago to be overly bothered by the usual American posturing, they know they have to be careful about it. Careful enough, yet sufficiently bold as it has been, to extend its front line defences out into the South China Sea. Huff and puff as much as the Americans and their cohort have about land grabs, the rights of nearby countries and the impact on international sea lanes, the real issue here for the Chinese is the relevance of these new bases in terms of the bristling nearby American military bases and what has been, for a long time, the American in-your-face sport of thumbing its nose up and down the coast of China with its ‘surveillance’ programs: ever probing, ever daring the Chinese to have a go. And the exuberance with which their usual toadies (including Australia) have joined in this humbug.

The Russians went into Cuba essentially to counter American nuclear weapons which they had positioned on Russia’s doorstep in Turkey. They withdrew from Cuba only after Kennedy agreed, through the back channels, to remove them. Those in the know at the time understood very well that the outcome of this was a win for Khrushchev, not Kennedy, and that Khrushchev had given the young Kennedy a little space for personal development by not spraying news of his win around the world.

The South China Sea is not Cuba, but the principle of pushing your defences as far forward as you can, or have been obliged to do, is. Unlike the Russians and Cuba, the Chinese have not expected the Americans to do anything about their nearby military facilities. So in doing the next best thing it has exposed the Americans as not really being game to do much about it. Other than, of course, with more passing around of the hat among its toadies to help pay for more promises that may never be delivered or, even if they are, would be of little consequence to China.

China knows that, if it has to, it can stand alone and that it can defend itself. It knows, too, that most nations of the world, other than America (which is, despite itself, somewhat conflicted), want to do business with it; to connect with its growing confidence and with its strengthening brand of non-threatening, non-coercive, non-evangelistic power.

Back in the early 1990’s, Mikhail Gorbachev gave Ronald Reagan the chance – a really big one – to put the world championship behind them and work together for a better way. He put both the Cold War and the future of the Soviet Union on the table. In ways akin to the American attitude towards China today, Ronnie went glassy-eyed with incomprehension. ‘A commie behaving like a saint?’ he must have thought. ‘What’s the catch?!’ Reagan was, of course, little more than an amiable enough Palooka (by no means among American presidents the only one) who was more interested in the next round in the ring than who was in his corner or what they were doing (such as Slick Ollie with his dobs of Contra liniment for Ronnie’s gloves), let alone who was ringing the bell. We can only wonder what an Obama might have done.

Unhappily for us all, the Gorbachevs and the Mandelas and the Keatings and the Dengs (possibly even the Xis) and the Obamas and the Merkels don’t come along that often, let alone at the same time.

For more on this topic, P&I recommends:

The US sees China through the dark mirror of its own unbridled aggression

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