Watch: Is China merely a competitor of the U.S., or an adversary or even an enemy?


China has become, over the past two decades, the planet’s second-most powerful nation after the United States. Booming economic growth has lifted millions of its citizens out of poverty and catapulted it to the world’s second-largest economy, while increased military spending has made it the second-largest military power (though its military spending, and nuclear stockpile, are still a small fraction of the U.S.’s).

That growth — in both economic and military power — has led U.S. officials to conclude that they must do more to counteract what they regard as China’s growing influence. President Obama, early in his administration, memorably vowed an “Asia pivot,” whereby the U.S. would devote fewer resources and less attention to the Middle East and more toward China’s growing power in its own region.

That led to some moderate escalation in adversarial relations between the two countries — including the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement (TPP) and other regional skirmishes — but nothing approaching direct military confrontation. President Trump, since taking office, has largely heaped praise on the Chinese government and its leader President Xi Jinping, siding with Xi over democracy protests in Hong Kong and even Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

But this pandemic has seriously escalated tensions between the two countries given the increasingly hostile rhetoric emanating from various sectors of the west, making it more urgent than ever to grapple with the complex relations between the two countries and how China ought to be perceived.

The question is far more complex than the usual efforts to create a new U.S. Enemy because numerous power centres in the U.S. and the west generally — particularly its oligarchs, Wall Street, and international capital — are not remotely hostile to Beijing but, quite the contrary, are both fond of it and dependent upon it. That’s why — unlike with other U.S. enemies such as Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro, the Iranian government or Nicolas Maduro — one finds very powerful actors, from Bill Gates to Michael Bloomberg to the consulting giant McKinsey to Trump himself, defending Chinese officials and urging better relations with them.

That, in turn, reflects a critical reality about U.S./China relations that defies standard foreign policy frameworks: while hawkish, pro-war political elements in both parties speak of China as an adversary that must be confronted or even punished, the interests of powerful western financial actors — the Davos crowd — are inextricably linked with China, using Chinese markets and abusive Chinese labor practices to maximize their profit margins and, in the process, stripping away labor protections, liveable wages and jobs from industrial towns in the U.S. and throughout the west.

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