Coming Cold War with China: Good or Bad?

On September 9, 2021, President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping had a phone conversation. It was the second since Biden had been in office. Neither President made a public statement of what was discussed – both made oblique references in advance about the current state of U.S.-China relations.

Neither President made any moral judgement of that relationship, good or bad. The official description from their respective foreign affairs establishments was that they discussed “challenges,” with opportunities for “cooperation,” and warned against overly aggressive actions toward other nations, or any disruptions of what both governments see as the natural, peaceful, social order.

It seems we’ve heard this talk before.

The original Cold War between the West and East following World War II was a similar geopolitical power struggle between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Each had a network of alliances, largely military, but also economic. What makes the nascent cold war between the U.S. and China different is that ideological differences between the two superpowers are more abstract, philosophical, rather than overtly stated political-social conflict. Chinese state capitalism (with monopoly power of one party, the CCP) does not claim to want destruction of capitalism in the U.S., or anywhere else. China long ago dispensed with that revolutionary Maoist fervor following the dictates of Bolshevism and Marxist-Leninist dogma. Some say the United States enabled this transition in China toward economic predominance, in a competitive global environment, and away from Mao.

While there is no shortage of would-be ideologues of “Western liberalism” on the U.S. side of this new cold war, it is not at all clear that most of the targets of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) would ever benefit from those Western liberal values, anyway. They see those values mainly as artifacts of European colonialism. So far, over 70 countries on four continents have signed on to China’s initiative. This does not, however, make them “satellites” of China in the sense we knew the word in the first Cold War.

We, in the affluent developed world, are now confronted by a new global challenge, represented not by an alien communist ideology which seeks to destroy us, but by a rapidly rising economic power which merely threatens U.S. status as the Global Hegemon. China’s gdp is currently number two in the world. But they do not seek to replace our liberal values – or the values of any other competitors.

Instead, they’re leaving it to us to decide whether our democratic system is compatible with intense economic competition from another society which clearly does NOT have such a system! Is retaining our status as Number One worth losing our democratic society? Besides, there is no consensus that a centralized, authoritarian social structure is necessarily a requirement for winning in global competition of productivity and strategic capital deployment. The jury is out on economic efficiency.

Pondering the new geopolitical environment leads to one basic question: “What is national security?” The answer always lies in perception of threats – threats to our physical territory, threats to our “way of life,” threats to our wealth – wait a minute! Threats to our wealth? Is this supposed to mean our personal standard of living, or the interests of capital, of corporations? What is the intended purpose of Australian nuclear submarines in the South China Sea, anyway? Whose interests are they defending?

How is China’s BRI a threat to any of our core values? In fact, increased opportunities for cooperation in scientific research, and expansion of new markets for goods and services around the world, should produce net benefits for all. The only problematic area seems to be threatened redistribution of capital between us and them! It has to do with money, not “way of life,” not the physical territory of either country, not any wage-based standard of living. China insists that middle income countries as well as developing nations will benefit from its BRI. Free trade among all nations can increase. Greater wealth, thus obtained, can be shared by all – except for the few who currently control a disproportionate amount for themselves!

So, what are we willing to do to protect our hoarding of wealth? Short of military confrontation and tariffs, it doesn’t seem like much. China knows this, and part of its strategic initiative includes building up its own military capability to protect BRI’s economic expansion. Nowhere in their plan does any incentive appear for first use of military force. Well-known to China, from her own history, is the West’s predisposition to do just that for economic ends. (In fairness, Chinese history has examples of its own imperialism, too, when the Empire was strong.)

We have two dimensions to consider as we contemplate the way the world will work over the next several decades. One is the scientific dimension: threats to the planetary ecosystem through global warming, or the need to fight global pandemics – cooperation between superpowers clearly trumps competition here, unless the competition can somehow spur scientific/technological discoveries. The other dimension is the distribution of scarce resources around the globe: this one is mostly humanitarian, related to the first, also dependent upon greater cooperation between superpowers – those that have little are not a threat to those that have much, save for them who are too greedy.

Greed is a moral problem. It is a moral problem shared equally by the wealthy of different cultures. I can decipher no reason why one society’s greedy should dominate another’s. And I believe history vindicates societies with superior methods for throttling greed – they ultimately beat the greedier ones. That’s why liberal democracies came to dominate authoritarian monarchies, why smaller “barbarian” tribes came to dominate the grossly unequal Roman Empire. Is it also why a centrally controlled CCP, dedicated to fighting corruption, will come to dominate a world filled with corrupt petty tyrants or decadent “democracies” where wealthy plutocrats, answering only to their shareholders, manage to maintain a lock on political institutions?

We need to focus on the real competition here. It’s not a matter of whose imperialism is better!

— William Sundwick

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