Bipartisan Fear, Bipartisan Aggression: China and The United States

Photograph Source: Peter Stevens – CC BY 2.0

This past spring, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent a bill to the Senate floor called the Strategic Competition Act of 2021. Sponsored by Democrat Menendez from New Jersey and Republican Senator Misch from Idaho, the bill is perhaps the most important piece of legislation regarding US policy towards China in Congress now. It certainly is one of the most belligerent. In short, the legislation is an attempt at further governmental involvement—from the Pentagon to those agencies dealing with trade and commerce—in the ever-intensifying economic rivalry between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. The complaints enumerated in the bill’s language read like a capitalist’s whine when confronted with a competitor whose practices not only mimic the complainant’s, but improves on them. In other words, most of what the bill argues are unfair practices by the players in the Chinese economy are practices long in use by the United States.

The bill opens by claiming the United States “actively worked” to incorporate China into the world economic order after its normalization of relations in 1979. To read the list of claims—which run from providing access, economic assistance and research collaboration—one would think Washington and Wall Street did all of this and more out of the magnanimity of its heart. Besides the fact that governments are essentially heartless and the capitalist system even more so, these claims are at best a joke. In fact, they are lies. The United States opened up to China to combat Soviet Union influence and because the US capitalist system needed another source of cheap labor, scientific research and potential markets. Now that China has become a capitalist economy and succeeded quite nicely at it, Washington is crying foul. In large part, this is because China is doing what the United States has done for decades, if not centuries. It is engaging in what this bill labels “predatory economic practices.”  Practices which, after all, are the essence of monopoly and financial capitalism.

Those practices include the advancing of various Chinese government initiatives like the so-called Belt and Road Initiative and the associated Silk Road initiative.  These various endeavors are obviously designed to spread China’s economic reach into the Asian, African and Latin American world.  Until now, these regions of the world have been considered by the US to be in its sphere.  The fact that China is threatening this hegemony is made quite clear in the introductory paragraphs, which read (in part):

The  PRC’s  objectives  are  to  first  establish regional  hegemony  over  the  Indo-Pacific  and  then  to use  that  dominant  position  to  propel  the  PRC  to  become  the  ‘‘leading  world  power,’’  shaping  an  international  order  that  is  conducive  to  the  CCP’s  interests.  Achieving  these  objectives  requires  turning  the PRC  into  a  wealthy  nation  under  strict  CCP  rule  by using  a  strong  military  and  advanced  technological capability  to  pursue  the  PRC’s  objectives,  regardless of other countries’ interests….

The  PRC  is  executing  a  plan  to  establish regional  hegemony  over  the  Indo-Pacific and  displace  the  United  States  from  the  region….(Section 2)

The complaining continues. China is accused of undermining democratic institutions and subverting financial institutions in countries where it has engaged in trade. Furthermore, continues the document, China is determined to become a technological and manufacturing superpower and is doing so by undermining human rights, fusing military and civil uses, and engaging in practices which go against established rules of international trade. Rules which were established by the United States and consequently favored the United States. In what is begging to be described as a perfect example of projection, the bill accuses the Chinese government of increasingly interfering in the Chinese economy. While this is obviously the case, what is this so-called Strategic Competition Act but an equally blatant interference in the US economy? An economy which, by the way, the bill’s language insists is free and open, despite the years of government activity proving exactly the opposite.

After the bill finishes accusing the government of China of pursuing policies very similar to those the United States thought were solely its to pursue in the world, the authors provide a list of policies and practices designed to ensure Washington’s continued role as the only super-imperialist power in the world.  Not surprisingly, this list sounds quite similar to the very policies and practices the earlier language accuses the Peoples Republic of China of pursuing in its efforts to enhance its economy.  Naturally, the language in the list of prescriptions for the United States is framed in language extolling the free market, international norms, collaboration, and the private sector.  However, when this language is distilled and reframed in more objective terms, it describes the same actions China is accused of by the writers of the legislation.

The bill seems quite clear in its language regarding the use of military force by the United States.  In fact, it declares: “Nothing in this Act may be construed as authorizing the use of military force.” (Section 6b)  This reflects an understanding that war with China is a war nobody alive wishes to experience.  At the same time, however, the section immediately prior to Section 6 calls for the creation of a Pacific Deterrence Initiative which, among other things diplomatic and economic, states the initiative” must  prioritize the  military  investments  necessary  to  achieve  United States  political  objectives  in  the  Indo-Pacific.”  Among these are provisions calling for ongoing transfers of military equipment to Taiwan and helping Taiwan to further develop an asymmetric military capability.  These capabilities include long-range weaponry, missiles, undersea weapons and more.  The bill includes similar language regarding Japan. Furthermore, there is a call to make the Indo-Pacific theater a priority for a US military presence. This includes “fielding   long-range,   precision-strike networks  to  United  States  and  allied  forces,  including  ground-launched  cruise  missiles,  undersea  and  naval  capabilities,  and  integrated  air and  missile  defense  in  the  First  Island  Chain and  the  Second  Island  Chain.” (Sec. 224 (11D) In addition, billions of dollars are requested to train and support foreign militaries in the regions—militaries with legacies of human rights violations of their own. This seemingly contradictory pose illuminates the fact proven throughout US history that the military option is always on the table and therefore always being enhanced.  It is Washington’s trump card, so to speak.

There is a section of the bill which discusses supposed predatory lending practices by the Chinese government and the country’s banks.  Of course, absolutely no mention is made of the grossly predatory nature of (US-dominated) IMF and World Bank loans and practices.  These are practices known for their bankrupting of entire nations, the impoverishment of millions of citizens losing access to subsidized food and shelter, and the destruction of  public health systems in order for the governments of those nations to qualify for said loans.  The nature of financial capitalism is such that all loans which charge interest or demand the dismantling and privatization of a borrower nation’s social services are by definition predatory.  I know of no instance where the Chinese have demanded a nation quit helping its people eat in order to get a loan.  The list of countries forced to do so by the IMF is long.

This article is but a brief look at this piece of legislation.  Like so many other bills of this nature, much of it is a purchase order to the war industry.  Indeed, there are dozens of lines devoted completely to describing the kind of weaponry Congress hopes to provide to those nations it deems sufficiently inside the US sphere of influence.  There is little discussion of costs here, but then again that is never a detail that seems to prevent giving money to the Pentagon and its associated industries.  Despite the admonition stated a few times in this bill that nothing should be construed as calling for use of military force against China, the existence of so much language regrading the procurement and distribution of US-made military weaponry and the discussion of various types of enhancement of US forces in the region makes it clear the bill is intended as a threat to the Chinese government.

The other aspect of this bill which is quite transparent is the threat to US hegemony perceived by the political establishment of the United States.  This perception is shared across that establishment, from the Trumpists to the progressive wing of the Democratic party and is about as bipartisan as any shared perception in mainstream US politics.  It is informed by an economic system that demands competition, not cooperation; exploitation, not sustainability, and profit before people.  Unfortunately, the Chinese economy is also increasingly incorporated under these characteristics, albeit with its own specifics.  If history is any kind of an indicator (and I believe it is), the unwelcome possibility of war looms behind any intensification of the economic and political rivalry between Washington and Beijing.  However, even if true cooperation is virtually impossible as long as both national economies place profits above most everything else, one hopes that some kind of peaceful coexistence can be maintained.  This bill does little to encourage that hope.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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