ReviewsIan Illett

The US versus China?

ReviewsIan Illett
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.


is a member of Suffolk Coastal CLP