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The US–China Confrontation

Views: 699 With the closure of China’s consulate in Houston and the American consulate in Chengdu, the confrontation between China and the United States moves up another …

by Stephen Shenfield



4 min read

With the closure of China’s consulate in Houston and the American consulate in Chengdu, the confrontation between China and the United States moves up another notch. 

Not such a big deal, you say? But other recent developments are more worrying.

Following her re-election in May, Taiwan President Tsai Ingwen made it clear that Taiwan is unwilling to negotiate unification with China on the terms set by Beijing. Since then China has stepped up its military exercises near Taiwan, sailed warships around the island, and flown fighter jets into its airspace.

More clashes have taken place in the Himalayas, along the poorly defined border between India and China. 

The National Defense Authorization Act 2021, passed by the Senate on July 23, includes an armaments program called the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, which has bipartisan support and is ‘aimed at countering China’s rise.’ The program is not all that costly, as armaments programs go: its allocation is ‘only’ $7 billion for the next two years – a mere ½% of the Pentagon’s current annual budget of $738 billion. What worries me is the destabilizing nature of many of the armaments – especially the hypersonic missiles, which combine the speed of ballistic missiles with the maneuverability and stealth of cruise missiles. 

The situation continues to deteriorate in the South China Sea, where China’s claims to sovereignty are challenged both by the US and by local states like Vietnam and the Philippines (see here for a fuller account). Hu Bo informs us in The Diplomat that ‘the China—US rivalry in the South China Sea is certainly growing’ and that there are ‘daily operational confrontations’ between naval vessels and military aircraft – but then assures us that ‘war is still some way off.’ 

Whew, what a relief! Still some way off! 

But hold on. How far off? Years? Months? Weeks?

In analyzing a confrontation like that between China and the United States, it is helpful to distinguish three general sources of conflict:

Resources and Trade Routes

First, states are constantly struggling for control over trade routes, markets, and resources. This kind of struggle is specific to the capitalist world order. 

Thus, the struggle in the South China Sea is a struggle for access to deposits of oil and natural gas (global heating be damned!) and to fish stocks. It is also a struggle for control over the main trade route linking the Pacific with the Indian Ocean. 

Another relevant example is the struggle for control over deposits of rare earth metals, which are essential to the manufacture of modern electronic devices. China used to be the sole source of these substances. When it suddenly restricted their export in 2010, a storm of righteous indignation swept Japan and the West (see here). The development of alternative sources – in particular, in Greenland (see here) – is gradually weakening China’s monopoly. 

The ‘Geopolitical’ Struggle  

The second source of conflict is the ‘geopolitical’ struggle among states for regional and global military and political supremacy. This kind of struggle is not specific to capitalism, although it is specific to class society. It goes back thousands of years and is an unavoidable consequence of the division of the world into separate states. 

A very common type of geopolitical struggle occurs during periods when one or more formerly dominant powers are in decline and one or more rising powers are challenging their dominance. Specialists in international relations call the formerly dominant powers ‘status quo powers’ and their challengers ‘revisionist powers.’ 

In World War Two the revisionist powers were Germany, Italy, and Japan, whose rulers felt excluded from earlier carve-ups of the world and now sought their ‘place in the sun.’ The war reduced most of Europe and much of Asia to ruins, so that in 1945 the United States emerged as the world’s dominant power. In the course of time its dominant position came to be challenged first by the Soviet Union and later by China, now the leading revisionist power. 

At the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century China’s ruling elite concentrated on accumulating its power potential and abstained from active self-assertion in world affairs. The new leadership under Xi considers that the time has now come to realize that potential. China is accordingly expanding its presence in underdeveloped countries – above all, in Africa with its abundant mineral and forest resources. In its own region the near-term strategic goal is to gain full control over the marine zone within the ‘First Island Chain.’  

A rational ruling elite would be realistic in assessing the shifting balance of power and make corresponding adjustments to its policy. The trouble is that ruling elites are not always rational. In particular, the ruling elite of a formerly dominant power finds it painful and humiliating to adjust to its decline. It is these feelings that generate the danger of war. Thus, the British ruling elite were emotionally attached to their empire and took ages to come to terms with the fact that ‘Britannia’ no longer ‘ruled the waves.’ The American ruling elite still inhabit a mental Cloud Cuckoo Land in which they are the rightful masters of the world. It is agonizing for them even to imagine withdrawing from beyond the First Island Chain, let alone from Africa. 

The Financial Times featured a perceptive article by Gideon Rachman entitled: ‘America v China: How trade wars become real wars.’ The author argues that the trade war with China unleashed by Trump heightens the danger of a real war, ‘because the geopolitical ambitions of a rising China will no longer be restrained by the need to keep the West’s markets open.’ True, the conflicts associated with trade entail their own risk of war. Nevertheless, the curtailment of trade brings to the surface a deeper and even more dangerous substratum of interstate relations. 

The Foreign Policy Impact of Domestic Politics

Capitalist politicians usually prioritize the demands of domestic politics. Often enough it is these demands that determine their foreign policy orientation. Trump gave his supporters the explicit instruction that they should respond to any criticism of his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic by ‘blaming China.’ On no account should they address the actual content of the criticism. 

And just as Trump lays the blame for his own failures on China, so do his Democratic opponents lay the blame for their failures on Russia. And in just the same way do the Chinese rulers lay the blame for their failures on the United States. 

Deflecting popular discontent against foreign ‘enemies’ is an age-old method of political manipulation. Even though this method is used for internal purposes, it inevitably has an impact on international relations and is one of the causes of conflict.

Our Message to Fellow Workers Everywhere

Our message as socialists to our fellow workers – here in the United States, in China, and throughout the world – is the same as it has always been. All these disputes that might lead to war – over territory, trade routes, access to resources, geopolitics, and all the rest of it – are disputes among our bosses. They are not our concern. It is they and not we who control territory and exercise power. Our basic position is the same everywhere. Despite differences in language and customs, we have much more in common with one another than we with our bosses. Nothing is at stake that is worth a single yuan or a single cent to us, let alone human lives.  

We hope that peace will be preserved. We hope that everyone who is in a position to act in defense of peace will do so. Hand in hand around the four oceans, heart with heart across the five continents, we shall unite humanity and build a new and better world.  

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I grew up in Muswell Hill, north London, and joined the Socialist Party of Great Britain at age 16. After studying mathematics and statistics, I worked as a government statistician in the 1970s before entering Soviet Studies at the University of Birmingham. I was active in the nuclear disarmament movement. In 1989 I moved with my family to Providence, Rhode Island, USA to take up a position on the faculty of Brown University, where I taught International Relations. After leaving Brown in 2000, I worked mainly as a translator from Russian. I rejoined the World Socialist Movement about 2005 and am currently general secretary of the World Socialist Party of the United States. I have written two books: The Nuclear Predicament: Explorations in Soviet Ideology (Routledge, 1987) and Russian Fascism: Traditions, Tendencies, Movements (M.E. Sharpe, 2001) and more articles, papers, and book chapters that I care to recall.

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