Incurable (?) US Schizophrenia About China

Photograph Source: Tia Dufour, White House – Public Domain

Rarely has a summit between the world’s two most important countries been burdened with fewer expectations. Rarely has the world, bristling with problems both urgent and persistent – from proliferating conflicts, renewed nuclear threats, derailed climate negotiations, a listing world economy – needed them to be higher.

The meeting between Presidents Xi and Biden on Wednesday on the sidelines of the upcoming APEC meeting ‘appears aimed less at finding venues for cooperation and more at setting the tone for the mounting global competition between the world’s two largest economies’ opined one writer on the Institute for Responsible Statecraft website, which is normally critical of the President’s militarism and international aggression. Closer to the summit, the Atlantic Council’s Colleen Cattle, opined from the other side of the foreign policy spectrum that ‘We should probably keep a pretty low bar in terms of tangible outcomes and deliverables… This is a meeting that’s probably much more about symbolism and showing a commitment among both leaders to maintain high-level communications and keep communications flowing over the course of the next year.’ Even the ‘cautiously optimistic’ Global Times, anxious to ensure an overly dark mood did not blight any prospects for agreement the summit ‘will help both sides get a more realistic understanding of each other’s strategic intentions and prevent divergences from turning into out-of-control conflicts’ and that ‘the meeting may serve to stabilize bilateral relations in the short term, as uncertainty will grow when the US enters its election cycle next year’.

With the bar set so low, how could the summit fail? Easily.

This is not because of some inveterate big-power rivalry. Apportioning the blame equally may be tempting to some, but not accurate.  China has consistently sought to lower tensions and cultivate better relations, often in the face of considerable US provocation, without compromising its development or security. So, both the deterioration of relations of recent years and the recent initiative to try to improve them, can be traced to the United States and the schizophrenia it has developed regarding China. Consider its actions during the Biden presidency alone.

On the one hand, belying expectations of better relations with China aroused during his campaign, President Biden took US-China relations to new depths. He pursued his predecessor’s trade with even greater zeal and escalated his technology war into the ‘Chips war openly aimed at stalling China’s technological advance. He seemed to go out of his way to worsen security relations, whether with irresponsible statements on Taiwan, baseless accusations of genocide in Xinjiang and increasing ‘freedom of navigation’ sorties close to China’s waters. Briefly, the Bali consensus arrived at on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in that city – essentially making US-China relations more predictable and crisis-free – seemed to reverse this deterioration but only months later the Biden administration reacted hysterically to the alleged ‘Chinese spy balloon’ and smashed it, though it had to admit later that the balloon was nothing of the sort.

On the other hand, however, since the middle of this year, the Biden administration has sent many high-level officials – including Foreign Secretary Anthony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo for meetings with their Chinese counterparts. President Biden announced a ‘thaw’ and was clearly in negotiations to set up the upcoming meeting, though it could not be announced until last Friday. Fed up with such erratic behaviour the Chinese demanded more than the usual assurances before agreeing to it. And even then, they are hard at work, managing expectations downwards.

So, what accounts for the US’s schizophrenic posture? Understanding this is key to interpreting the outcomes of the summit, whatever they may be.

The US’s enthusiasm for ‘engaging China’ in the 1990s rested on the illusion, born of a combination of US’s long-standing wishes for imperial or ‘hegemonic’ dominance over the world and the temporary boost they got from the demise of the Soviet Union, that such engagement would turn China into a pliant periphery of the US, happy to produce low-tech, low-wage goods for the US market. By the early 2000s, however, senior US officials were already beginning to suspect that this wish would not be fulfilled. While China had no desire to offend the US, it was determined to pursue its own development, technological, economic and social to create and maintain its security and increase the material well-being of its people.

Since then, the US posture towards China has become ever more hostile and aimed to prevent China’s rise, with President Bush’s steel and aluminum tariffs, President Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’, President Trump’s trade and technology wars and now President Biden’s New Cold War, complete with threats about US ‘defending militarily, raising the specter of fighting China with Taiwanese proxy just as it is currently fighting Russia ‘to the last Ukranian’.

However, the US does not enjoy the luxury of giving free rein to its hostility. The results of its decades of ‘engaging China’, which include the productive intertwining of the two economies through outsourcing and the US’s much-ballyhooed reliance on China to support its treasuries market that gave rise to the ‘Chimerica’ of the 2000s, are not easily reversed. They have split the US corporate capitalist class into two sharply opposed parts, one benefitting from hostility to China – obviously the military-industrial complex and sections of the information and communications technology threatened by Chinese competition – and the other for continuing close links with China, such as Nvidia, the chip-maker. Every step the US takes to thwart China ends up hurting these latter corporations many of whom the Biden administration relies on for the funds to get re-elected in 2024.

This is why the US must both wreck its relations with China and try to repair them. So long as it wishes to pursue its goals of world dominance or hegemony despite mounting evidence that it cannot, as long as the US refuses to settle down to being an ordinary, if still very powerful country rather than an exceptional one destined to run the world, this will not change. If anything, US policy towards China will only get more schizophrenic. What it will take to change it used to be called revolution. The word may have become old-fashioned but the reality needed to change it remains the same, no matter what new-fangled term is devised to denote it.