Why the West sees China as a threat

Feb 20, 2024
BRICS - Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa illustration. Economic association concept

China is threatening to the West because it provides an example of how a poor and technologically backward country can effectively defy Western domination of the mind and body.

Since the late 15th Century until the mid-20th Century the West, through its technological and hence military superiority has been able to project to the rest of the world the image of a rich, militarily powerful and far better educated civilisation. The rest of the world were quite easily subjugated with few exceptions through colonisation and the conscious projection of the image of superiority. The third world were mentally cowed, mostly by Western technological advancements which gave rise to what we describe today as modernisation with inventions such as electricity, the steam engine, flight, Western medicine and other such aspects of a modern comfortable and secure life of relative abundance. However, with the passage of time and civilisation, absolute domination of the body and mind cannot continue forever. Slavery was abolished by the United Kingdom in 1833 throughout its colonies; and by the United States in 1865 after the American Civil War. By the late 1900s, Britain had given up most of its colonies. However, the slavery of the mind, a covert phenomenon, was not so easily surrendered (or erased in the minds of the enslaved) as it would mean a loss of access to cheap resources, labour and a market for the West’s manufactured goods and services.

In the place of slaves and colonies, the West innovated “globalisation” and in its wake the “international rules-based order” into which all nations in the world were corralled to establish an order for the continued and peaceful exploitation of the human and natural resources of the world. With that came other essential domination paradigms such as the World Bank, IMF, the petrol and fiat dollar, the SWIFT system and even the WTO. Meanwhile, the US and its allies were not beyond fighting wars to keep the dissidents, those who dare to think or act independently, in line. In Asia, we had the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the overthrow of the Sukarno government by the Suharto government, Afghanistan and the arming of Taiwan (and the concomitant strategic ambiguity) as examples.

The Western dominated status quo went well for a while until Japan was able to catch up with the West, first by imitating; and then, with increasing confidence, with innovation. What was in the beginning thought of as cheap Japanese stuff became valued Japanese goods. She gave the West a run for their money and unwittingly caused an awakening of the countries known at the time as “Asian Tigers”, primarily Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and South Korea.

Yet there was no real challenge to the “international rules based order”. Any attempt at rebellion was quickly and easily put down.

A case in point was the attempt by Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, to shore up the price of tin in 1981 and 1982 by actively trading in the commodity through a government owned company called “Maminco”. For that transgression, Malaysia lost $80 million, a huge sum at the time. Mahathir, of course, blamed the controllers of the market, alleging “… that the London Metal Exchange (LME), the world’s premier metals market, had stymied the plan by what he called cheating to protect its members when it changed futures trading rules to make defaulting on delivery only punishable by a fine, relieving traders of possible legal action.” (L.A. TIMES ARCHIVES, Nov. 12, 1986).

Nonetheless the developed West was cruising along well until a poor, despised and the most populous nation in the world, under its intellectually liberated leader Deng Xiaoping, decided to open up their economy to the world and adopt Western technology in complete contradiction to their almost 30 years of seeing through a Marxist/Leninist lens. In deference to its communist roots, he called the new system “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. They decided to grow rich by catching the mouse regardless of the colour of the cat. In the beginning, the US was amicable to the attempt by China to engage with the rest of the world by overhauling its whole economic state-run system in favour of foreign investments and adoption of Western business and technological methods. They were attracted by the cheap labour and potentially huge market; and the probability that with wealth, the Chinese would become “more like us”. “At the time, U.S. President Bill Clinton and his advisors contended that bringing China into the global trading system would not only benefit the United States, but also foster economic and ultimately democratic reform in China.” (Siripurapu and Berman, 2023:)

What they had not expected was that China would develop as fast as it did, or would refuse to undertake democratic reform. In other words dared to think and act independently.

China is now described as an existential threat to the US and its North Atlantic allies and Japan because its economy is now by purchasing power parity reckoned the biggest economy in the world. An early sign that the US is losing the trade competition was when Donald Trump condemned globalisation, the US’ own brainchild, and declared an “American first” policy.

China is an example to the Global South that the keepers of the international rules based order do not need: Countries can act independently and still be successful. The poorer countries are now getting more assertive because they are less beholden to the West and Japan for trade. They now have an alternative industrialised country to sell to; one that does not dictate to them and interfere with their internal affairs. Many, like the BRICS countries are breaking away from the iron hold that the US has on their economies out of fear that the present world financial system under US control could be weaponised against them.

As communications academics say, we read as much into texts as we read out of them. The Western nations and Japan are reading as much into Chinese international relations as they are able to read out of it. They read into Chinese actions the mental and physical control that the West exercised over others even today. The response is unfortunately what has been describe as “de risking” and “proxy wars” or arming others on the excuse of maintaining “common values”. The world has changed but the Western democracies and Japan continue to elect conservatives into government under the delusion that the good times are not over and that they are still in control.

That misguided attempt by Western politicians to prove to their electorates that they are still in control of people in the global south is at the root of all geopolitical problems today.


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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