SCOTT BURCHILL. The China Syndrome

May 5, 2018

The deceitful exaggeration of the threat that China’s rise allegedly poses for countries in the Asia-Pacific has been exposed by a number of analysts in Australia, including Brian Toohey. There is no need to reprise their arguments here, other than to say that in what passes for scholarship in the West, it is has become routine to portray China as being “aggressively expansionist” with much less discussion about its legitimate historical claims in the Asia-Pacific.

Nor will I examine the extent to which China’s enormous internal challenges are likely to inhibit any external ambitions it might actually have, as opposed to those that are projected onto it (see Susan Shirk).

Instead I will focus on two equally obvious flaws in the “debate”, the first a consequence of epistemological error, the second ideological naïveté. I will then briefly look at how Donald Trump poses additional challenges for America’s allies.

 Demarcating knowledge

Much of the discussion about the strategic threat posed to the West by the “rise of China” occurs in splendid isolation from any real understanding about contemporary economic interdependence. It is not necessary to be an economic liberal to note that military aggression between the United States and China in the foreseeable future would be so counterproductive for both sides that only an irrational politician would even consider it. Stranger things have happened, but it is highly unlikely that either the political representatives of US transnational capital nor the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party would let ideology they don’t actually believe in trump self-interest any time soon.

A central reason that arguments about economic interdependence are demarcated from this debate is the artificial separation of strategic studies from political economy. After the announcement that US Marines would be deployed to Darwin, there was much discussion about the strategic importance of China’s trade routes through the Straits of Malacca without any recognition that these are really Apple’s and Nike’s trade routes. Whether or not one accepts that the US has been the “guarantor of freedom of navigation through the straits” (Peter Hartcher), the reasons China might have for suddenly curbing this “freedom” with its expanding navy are not immediately obvious and rarely explained.

This is the age old strategic mistake of imputing motives from capabilities, a discredited formula that nonetheless remains habitual amongst “hard-nosed” strategists.

The presupposition that states are unitary actors in global politics – an assumption shared by most theories of International Relations with the notable exception of Marxists – also significantly distorts the rise of China “debate” in the West.

China has become an enormous production centre for both US and East Asian transnational corporations, or perhaps more accurately, an enormous assembly plant for manufacturing across the region. Because conventional approaches to international politics are blind to endogenous factors such as class, and assume states are unitary actors, this story is presented as the rise of the Chinese economic behemoth, which will soon overtake the United States to become the world’s largest economy.

In truth power has moved, not so much from the US to China, but from the global workforce to private capital. Because capital and production are mobile and labour is not, we are witnessing a steady global decline in the share of wealth held by workers. This point is normally absent from euphoric descriptions of millions of Chinese peasants rising out of rural poverty. As Noam Chomsky notes, “there is a global shift of power, but it’s not Chinese/Indian power displacing the United States. It’s a shift from working people all over the world to transnational capital.” China’s rapid industrial development accelerates this trend.

It is important to look beyond simplistic and misleading GDP figures. China is the second largest economy in the world but ranks only 90 on the Human Development Index (HDI), which is a more accurate measure of a country’s standard of living, public utilities and distribution of wealth and income. China remains a very poor country and its rise constitutes a dramatic shift in the distribution of class power, decisively away from labour and in favour of transnational capital. You don’t need to be a Marxist to notice it.

You do need to know something about globalisation and economic interdependence, however, to understand that just as “China’s trade routes” are really Apple’s, Nike’s, and thousands of other Western TNCs, so are “China’s exports”. In fact in the manufacturing sector, it is no longer clear how any state can accurately define “its own” exports in a meaningfully nationalist way. The extent to which Chinese business is actually Chinese in a distinct national sense, as opposed to transnational in character, is highly debatable, as is the suggestion that the Chinese military threat is a normal extrapolation from “its” growing economic size. Statistics may not lie but they can be very misleading.

If anything, corporate wealth is becoming a more realistic measure of global power than national wealth. According to Chomsky, in virtually every economic sector – manufacturing, services, finance, retail, etc, US corporations dominate – effectively owning close to 50% of the entire world economy. That is roughly the proportion of US national wealth in 1945: so much for US’s economic decline, relative or absolute.

China’s immense foreign reserves, mostly held in the form of depreciating US dollars, and its willingness to keep buying US Treasury bonds, has allowed the US to spend beyond its means, including Washington’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even if there were no other factors, such as extraordinarily high levels of US direct investment in China, underwriting Washington’s growing and unsustainable debts ensures that both countries will remain economically intertwined regardless of fluctuating strategic or political perceptions of each other.

What about US motives?

A primary goal of the US lobby in Australia is to insulate the alliance from both changes of administration after elections and leadership successions within the major political parties. Despite consistent popular backing, bipartisan support for the US alliance cannot always be assumed, so strategies are devised to raise the “strategic value” of the relationship above the fray of domestic politics.

During the Iraq war, Washington’s boosters in the Australian media sought to quarantine the alliance from widespread public hostility to George W. Bush. Labor leader Mark Latham got away with describing Bush as “the most incompetent and dangerous president in living memory,” a view widely shared in both countries. But when he subsequently questioned the value of the US alliance in his published diaries, Latham confirmed in the minds of Australia’s US lobby that he was unfit for high office.

Although Latham had not been successfully socialised into accepting the incontrovertible value of the alliance, Julia Gillard clearly was. In 2010 WikiLeaks revealed how Gillard’s right wing colleague Mark Arbib, whom the US Embassy in Canberra considered a “protected” source, had reassured his US handlers that Gillard understood the importance of the alliance and that they should take no notice of her background in the socialist left faction of the Victorian ALP.

Arbib, who told the Americans he supported Australia’s involvement in the Iraq war despite his party’s opposition, convinced Washington that Gillard was a pragmatist who could be trusted with the bilateral relationship. How right he was. In one of her first statements as Prime Minister, an obsequious Gillard told US President Barack Obama it was a “great honour and privilege” just to talk to him. She then “reassured” him of her fidelity to the alliance, and gave him Australia’s uncritical support for the disastrous military campaign in Afghanistan.

The fawning became more intense when Obama finally arrived in Australia, with politicians, journalists and think tankers swooning in unison. However, gossip about transient personalities which provide colour and movement for journalists, should not be confused with analysis informed by a knowledge of long-standing currents, motives and goals in international politics. Political leaders come and go, often quite quickly. A fixation with atmospherics, individual relationships and the personification of policy is mostly a sideshow – little more than mass entertainment.

US foreign policy can only be understood in its historical context, a recognition of patterns that have “scarcely altered over the past half-century,” at least to those who have bothered to examine them (historian Gabriel Kolko). In the case of the West versus China “debate”, escaping the zeitgeist is made easier by recalling how the United States has consistently viewed China with hostility since the middle of the last century. According to historian James Peck

In the 1940s, Washington labeled China a “puppet”; in the years of the Sino-Soviet alliance, the early to mid-1950s, Beijing was Moscow’s “independent junior partner”; in the 1960s, it became an expansionist force and a feared “revolutionary model.” Other Chinas followed: China the skilled geo-political player in the Soviet-American-Chinese triangle of the 1970s; the human rights violator with economic development potential of the 1980s and 1990s; and now China the uneasy ally against terrorism and, at last, economic behemoth.

Each of Washington’s Chinas have been simplistic ideological formulations, largely intended for domestic audiences. As Peck argues, none were ever really accurate: “they were assessments of China not as it was but as Washington needed it to be in order to pursue specific strategies.”

Even before 11 September 2001, Washington designated China as the greatest long-term challenge to American ambitions for retaining global hegemony. This is the lens through which we should look at Washington’s so called “return” to the Asia-Pacific. In truth, of course, it never left the region.

The suggestion that this approach continues today – Washington deciding the role China must play in the Asia-Pacific to complement its strategic and economic interests – does not occur to those who are currently carving out a career in the “rise of China” industry. Even when Obama spoke in the Australian Parliament about “shaping the region” and increasing the capacity of the US to “project power in the region”, it is China which “must prove itself to be a constructive player and valued partner”, or else (academic Greg Barton).

There was no discussion of Pax Americana or Washington’s insistence on “full spectrum dominance” in the Asia-Pacific. Instead, at the outer limits of expressible dissent, we got Hugh White applauding Washington’s “leadership” and “primacy” in the region, carefully avoiding references to US “preponderance” and reserving the word “hegemony” for some hypothetical and improbable future threat from China. If White really is a realist as is sometimes claimed, he would be calling for a balance of power in the region instead of fudging the issue with historical references to a concert of powers, while actually cheering for US dominance.

The vitriol directed at White for his unremarkable suggestion that Washington may need to accommodate China’s growing importance in the region indicated just how narrow the spectrum of permissible thought is on this topic. Even the slightest deviation from uncritical support for total US hegemony, especially from a mainstream establishment figure like White, has to be crushed.

Consequently, in discussion of his speech in the Parliament there was no suggestion that what Obama meant by a “rules-based international system” was one where Washington writes the rules and others (ie China) obey them. Instead we heard jejune commentary about America’s benign regional presence, selflessly increased to reassure friends and allies that it was recommitting to the Asia-Pacific to thwart the ominous rise of the Middle Kingdom.

A hypothetical future challenge to US preponderance was cast as an immediate security concern for the entire region, which suddenly required the transition of US Marines through Darwin.

Some important questions were posed. What if Australia and the United States have divergent economic and strategic interests? According to former foreign minister Gareth Evans, the 1987 Defence White Paper “liberated” Australian foreign policy because it recognised that Australia could not economically engage with East Asia while simultaneously defending itself against the region. Why would they buy our minerals while we aimed our guns at them? Does it now make sense for Canberra to reverse this policy by contributing more directly to the strategic containment of its most important export market?

Other questions were not asked. What is the actual nature of this threat, other than China seeking military authority more commensurate with its growing economic size? How would China benefit by making itself a less attractive economic partner and location for foreign investment? And who is actually expressing concern about China in the region, populations or their political leaders?

In virtually all the commentary about Obama’s visit to Australia, it was presupposed that closer US military engagement in the Asia-Pacific would be entirely unproblematic, as it has apparently been in the past. That Washington could behave as recklessly and violently in this region as it regularly does in Central America or the Middle East, for example, is literally unthinkable. China is the only “bellicose” state in the region (Greg Barton), though Cambodians and the Vietnamese might have something to say about the humanitarian nature of US interventions in Indochina last century.

As might others with at least some knowledge of the region’s history, and Washington’s promiscuous intervention in it. According to one prominent alliance booster citing evidence of Washington’s long-standing commitment to the region, the US “took possession of the Philippines at the end of the 19th century” (journalist Greg Sheridan), neglecting to mention that this “possession” triggered the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos. Imagine for a moment the reaction if someone wrote that Germany “took possession” of Poland in 1939 without mentioning the subsequent holocaust. The lengths to which the US lobby in Australia is prepared to go in order to whitewash US imperialism in the Asia-Pacific remains impressive.

“History,” Obama said, “is on the side of the free” unless, to take just one example which immediately preceded his visit to Australia, you have the misfortune to be a Shi’ite in Bahrain, when the benefits of being a US ally in 2011 were not always so obvious. In this case your reward for hosting the US military – the 5th fleet – is Washington’s opposition to your struggle for freedom, human rights and democracy, together with new arms sales to your torturers. It’s a lesson also painfully learnt by Egyptians, Palestinians, Yemenis, Libyans and so many others.

Trump & Australia

President Trump is a faux nationalist, promising to bring American jobs back home, imposing tariffs on imported aluminium and steel, all the while manufacturing his golf clubs, clothing lines and hotel merchandise in China: despite public claims to the contrary, he has long benefitted from “offshoring” and other neoliberal mantras. As a property developer, his entire business model is premised on economic globalisation, so no-one should take his protectionist and nationalist rhetoric too seriously. It’s purely for domestic consumption.

At heart he also seems to be a strategic isolationist, refusing to confront Russia and promising to withdraw from Syria and other futile conflicts he inherited from his predecessors. In this quest he is facing stiff opposition from Washington’s Deep State – the US defence and intelligence establishment – which remains committed to promiscuous American interventions around the world. The struggle between Trump and the Deep State began before he took office in January 2017 and will ultimately shape his foreign policy legacy.

It is Trump’s isolationist instincts which worry allies such as Australia the most. When Prime Minister Turnbull announced in front of the president that Australia and the US are “joined at the hip”, it is to the threads of policy continuity enforced by the Deep State that he is referring rather than Trump’s erratic, idiosyncratic and unpredictable approach to global politics. Were Trump to prevail over the defence and intelligence establishment on a major foreign policy issue, Canberra may well start wishing for a joint replacement.

When foreign minister Julie Bishop declares support for a “rules-based international order” in her increasingly incoherent speeches about East Asia, she is simply cheerleading for a bygone era when US preponderance was presupposed. Her speeches often sound as if they were written by Republicans on Capital Hill who these days can only raise a smile when, in what appears to be an annual ritual, Trump drops bombs on Bashar al Assad’s forces in Syria. She cannot be sure that Trump’s vision of the US in world affairs will match her nostalgia for the traditional “spokes and hub” alliance model of US engagement in the region. He doesn’t seem very interested.

Unnecessary antagonisms such as public support for freedom of navigation through the South China Sea and speeches which declare China unfit for regional leadership because it isn’t “democratic” play well in Washington’s beltway. However, pleasing Washington’s Deep State, with which Trump is effectively at loggerheads, should not be Canberra’s priority. Australia has much more important interests at stake in East Asia.

As Geoff Raby recently noted, on China policy Bishop has become marginalised by a suspicious Prime Minister and a defence and intelligence establishment which knows she is more comfortable taking selfies in Hollywood than the grinding, less glamorous task of policy development in Canberra. One consequence of this is amnesia about how important it is for Australia to carefully manage the Canberra-Beijing-Washington triangle in a way that avoids making invidious choices between our most important economic (China) and strategic (US) interlocutors.

Another consequence of declining DFAT influence is an increasingly nasty and racist attack on Chinese influence in Australia by defence and intelligence bureaucrats, academics and journalists who still find the rise of China difficult to accept. Accusations that Chinese students are spying in Australian universities, opposition to farm purchases by Chinese consortiums, or claims that Chinese telecommunications companies such as Huawei threaten the security of the NBN, are part of a campaign that singles out our most important trading partner while wistfully ignoring much higher levels of foreign investment in Australia by the US and UK. Bishop is either unwilling or unable to confront this development: and sometimes she just make things worse. Beijing is rightly unimpressed and at the level of officials, is clearly downgrading the relationship.

Of course any mention of US or UK spying activities in Australia remains taboo. Trying to undermine legitimate Chinese influences in Australia is sometimes a difficult challenge for those who still pine for US hegemony but also want to profit by selling fossil fuels to communists. Insulating the US alliance from widespread popular concern about the White House’s present incumbent may prove even harder, and would be impossible if Australians were aware of the extent to which its great and powerful friends spy on them.

Fortunately, the overwhelming importance of two-way trade between Australia and China is unlikely to be affected by current levels of ideological nostalgia felt by political elites in Canberra deeply troubled by a US president who seems less than keen on maintaining Pax Americana in East Asia.

Dr Scott Burchill is Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Deakin University. 

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