The US versus China?
THIS IS A VERY USEFUL BOOK. The rise of China has changed the world. The scale of it all is huge and historic. It couldn’t get more important but even on the left there’s at best a lack of attention. The scale of everything is eye-watering: biggest population, nearly one in five of the world’s people; biggest, fastest economic growth in history; biggest economy in the world by one measure, second by another; biggest ever national poverty reduction; biggest industrial proletariat in history.
Jude Woodward seeks to counter criticisms of China and explain changed global politics. She offers a sympathetic assessment of China’s foreign policy though accepting it has shifted to a more assertive stance since the mid-2000s and the leadership change in 2013.
Centrally, she argues that the US has responded by making its foreign policy goal curbing and confronting the rise of Chinese influence to maintain US global domination. This policy shift started at least from the Obama administration’s ‘pivot to Asia’.
Despite Trump’s abandonment of Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and stepping up of anti- China rhetoric, Woodward sees his administration as working under the same constraints and obstacles that she identifies. She reviews the various tactical approaches to achieve this among the foreign policy and military establishment but identifies the model used against the Soviet Union as the most relevant to understanding current strategy. That means a new cold war to contain China within a ring of hostile alliances, while isolating it from international support.
On that basis she looks at China’s relations around its massive borders and beyond. The key players are Russia, Japan and South Korea but she also works through Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Central Asia and India.
These informative thumbnail sketches interweave the story of US attempts to contain China’s influence with relevant elements of history, economics and politics. During the old cold war Japan, South Korea and Taiwan acted as extensions of NATO in the Far East and remain US supports. But she outlines the way their position has changed since the post-war US occupation of Japan and its war in Korea.
Possibly the most important change (leaving aside North Korean nuclear capability) is the two decade economic malaise of Japanese capitalism and the domestic rise of nationalism. Woodward captures the dilemmas this poses for the US especially in relation to South Korea and China. And, as she points out, after reasserting itself militarily in the South China Seas under Obama, the election of Duterte in the Philippines has weakened US influence there.
Woodward identifies the tensions between Asian nations, including a brief Chinese invasion of Vietnam, inevitable probably given China’s long history as a dominant power, but she basically argues that given the geographic proximity, if China handles relations sensitively, its economic dynamism can outweigh US influence.
The key cold war game play that also seems to be failing is triangulating Russia and China as Nixon and Kissinger did so successfully in the 1970s, exploiting the Sino-Soviet split that developed from the late 1950s. Given the US conflict with Russia over Ukraine and Syria, that looks difficult, though interestingly we also see Trump now calling for Russian readmission to the G8 in the midst of arguments over protectionism with his western allies.
India looks a better bet, with a population size catching China’s and economic growth similar or faster for a period. Woodward outlines India’s chequered relations with the US during the Cold War and more recent ups and downs, but also the serious problems in relations with China, including China’s renewed activity in the Indian Ocean and relations with Pakistan - especially border disputes that have led to brief armed conflict. She notes increased Japanese investment and diplomacy but argues that it cannot substitute for Chinese trade and investment with India.
Militarily, given the huge US superiority and the possession of nuclear weapons, Woodward sees war as unlikely. The main military risk of confrontation is in the build-up of naval forces, as China seeks to defend its coastal waters and trade routes against US attempts to contain it. But she warns that the US air sea battle strategy, based on the idea of a pre-emptive missile strike, is as dangerous as the Schlieffen plan which locked Germany into all out invasion of France in 1914.
Woodward usefully, if briefly, covers issues that China critics identify such as the environment, inequality, the migrant labour ‘hukou’ system, low population growth and economic policy debate. For many socialists there will be a lot missing, not least the concept of class struggle, though her analysis is certainly rooted in a particular view of socialism and imperialism.
But above all this is primarily a book about international relations and I think it’s fair to take it on its own terms. From a western liberal view Gideon Rachman’s book Easternisation: War and Peace in the Asian Century is also worth a read.