by Assaf Kfoury
Originally published by The Shape Project
Not a day passes without a China-related news item, typically an ominous one. This focus on Chinese matters is perhaps understandable, given China’s sheer size with a population larger than the North American and European populations combined, but it often veers into alarmist and largely fabricated frenzy about an imagined Chinese threat.
China’s actions are presented as belligerent and unjustified, driven by misplaced fears about an encircling West bent on blocking its rise. By contrast, the US government and its allies are unquestionably presumed well-intentioned and fair-minded(1), benevolently working “towards an international community characterized by cooperation, not division and confrontation” (EU President von der Leyen).
But declared intentions for a world of harmony and cooperation are repeatedly trumped by actual policies that accomplish just the opposite. At a time when all countries, starting with China, should be part of the efforts to develop technology for clean renewable energy and limit the ongoing devastation of global warming, the Biden administration has busied itself with signing “a series of laws aimed at supercharging America’s industrial capacity and imposed new limits on the export of technology to China, in hopes of dominating the race for advanced energy technologies.”
An example of this distorted focus is the most recent G7 meeting. It was an occasion for the US to rally its allies and to re-affirm that “the clean-tech race is an opportunity to go faster and further, together,” but “one country they don’t want to see benefit is China.” Our common planet can go up in flames, as it were, but China will not be allowed to be in the lead of the battle against global warming — let alone lead it. With US leadership, the last day of the G7 meeting was “focused on economic security, an all- but-explicit effort to push back on China’s economic influence.”
This kind of frenzied concern about China’s emergence as a superpower rival to the US has been destructive on many levels (2). It has created an environment of acquiescence to many extreme policy measures, foremost perhaps in justifying an ever increase in the already-bloated funding for the US military, measures that are invariably proposed and approved with not a hint of skepticism beyond a tiny handful of US Congress members.
Notwithstanding that the US spends more on the military than the next 10-12 countries combined (3), with the US alone accounting for about 40% of global military spending (4), the highest-ranking US military officer can still declare solemnly to an audience of US Congress people:
Not exactly a worldview that prioritizes human solidarity and cooperation! (5) On that view, engagement with the rest of the world will be maintained by overwhelming military force – with a police truncheon, so to speak, to keep everyone else on guard (6).
The anti-China campaign now regularly pervades pronouncements by government officials, politicians, and media commentators. The default is to bash China and put it in a negative light. Suppression of Uyghur culture (yes, it is ongoing!) and violation of other human rights (yes, they are violated!) are eagerly invoked when it comes to China, as if to warn the public not to be seduced by Chinese accomplishments (7). The campaign is steadily doing its work at a popular level, in effect preparing the public for the coming showdown. While favorability of China fluctuated between 40% and 50% during the two decades prior to 2018, and reached 53% in 2018, it has gradually declined to a record-low 15% within a short four years – and is still declining (8).
Though still largely unsuccessful in the Global South, the anti-China blitz is slowly inching closer to military confrontation. It is a perilous standoff where the slightest accident or misunderstanding of intentions can trigger a nuclear cataclysm that will spare no one on the planet – with no distinction between North and South, between rich and poor, or between democracies and autocracies.
This blinkered way of dealing with the rest of the world – self-centered, self-righteous, unimaginative, hyper-militarized – is unavoidably exacerbating other global problems, notably the war in Ukraine.
When China recently expressed its intention to play a role in bringing an end to the war in Ukraine, the US dismissed it because, in the words of Secretary of State Blinken, China has to first accept “the principle that there’s a victim and there’s an aggressor” and subscribe to the premise that the US and NATO have been detached bystanders. So, to play a role, China has to abide by US rules, accept US interpretation of events, and agree to the sham that NATO has been an instrument of peace (9).
Were it only that Mr. Blinken would see reality for what it really is: The US military and its NATO extension have been in truth instruments of ruthless destruction in several places over more than three decades! In places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, destruction has been pitiless and deliberate, at levels far exceeding anything perpetrated by Russia in Ukraine (so far). Is that kind of honesty beyond expectation from any part – or anyone – in a US officialdom that keeps proclaiming to itself and the world “we are the indispensable nation” and “the moral beacon”? Perhaps then – however illusory now – the US and China could work in concert to end the war in Ukraine. Setting aside personal wishes for how all the villains in this war should be punished, the US and China are probably the only two countries with the necessary combined clout capable of jointly initiating an end to what increasingly looks like a mutually assured destruction of Ukraine (now) and Russia (soon after).
If this ever happens, it won’t be too soon, as a saner voice on the world stage has been warning that the whole planet is already on a perdition course for different reasons – the systematic abuse and pillaging of its resources:
“We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator. […] I am calling for a historic Pact between developed and emerging economies – a Climate Solidarity Pact. […] The two largest economies – the United States and China – have a particular responsibility to join efforts to make this Pact a reality. […] Humanity has a choice: cooperate or perish. It is either a Climate Solidarity Pact or a Collective Suicide Pact” (UN Secretary-General Guterres’ speech at COP27).
The police truncheon in US hands is more like the torch of a pyromaniac who insists on being in charge of the burning house!
1 Here is a typical reporting in the NY Times, which presents a China obsessed with an encircling American power and a US passively reaping the benefits of this unprovoked obsession: “Beijing’s assertiveness has pushed more countries deeper into the arms of the United States, including long-established allies like Japan, South Korea and Australia, as well as fence straddlers like the Philippines. It has also brought India closer to Washington than ever, something that once seemed unthinkable in U.S. foreign policy circles given Delhi’s history of nonalignment. Analysts say those sorts of self-inflicted wounds are unavoidable under Mr. Xi’s leadership. The more Mr. Xi feels insecure and threatened, the more his nationalistic tendencies compel him to push back, regardless of the costs.” In Xi’s China, Economic Needs May Take a Back Seat to Security.
2 It is on many levels and in many areas. One area in which I am directly involved is research and education in the mathematical sciences. Obsessive concern about losing the innovative edge over China repeatedly backfires: students are denied summer internships in federal-funded projects because of their friendship with Chinese students, research proposals are declined because of principal investigators’ past associations with Chinese colleagues. Such practices undermine the norm of seeking research partners across countries and borders with little or no attention to political considerations. Studies show that the best science is often done by international research teams.
3 Numbers fluctuate from year to year, but the trend has been the same over many decades. This is in fact not the full story. Ranked by size of military outlays, out of the top 20 countries, only 3 are not US allies: China, Russia, and India. (RANKED: The world’s 20 strongest militaries). Of the remaining 16, there are 8 NATO members and 8 Major Non-NATO Allies (Major Non-NATO Ally Status). Of the latter 8, there are 5 that are on China’s periphery or close to it (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia). Little wonder that the Chinese feel under siege!
4 The staggering numbers are shown in List of countries by military expenditures and, in more details, in Military expenditure by country, 1988-2020. Again here, this is not the full story. It is predicted that US military expenditures, which amounted to $746 billion in 2023, will increase to $1.1 trillion by 2033 (Defense outlays and forecast in the United States from 2000 to 2033), far surpassing China’s projected defense outlays over the same 10- year period.
5 Gen. Milley’s speech, followed by an equally ominous speech by Sec. of Defense Lloyd J. Austin in the same session, are remarkable statements of a bleak vision where the US military’s overwhelming superiority must remain unchallenged as the only possible guarantee for world peace. It prompted not a single peep of skepticism from any of the US Congress people in attendance.
6 A telling event in the last week of May 2023 was the intense debates in Washington DC about the the US debt ceiling. Politicians were negotiating spending cuts for everything in the federal budget, except the Pentagon and veteran programs. In fact, “military spending emerge[d] as big dispute in debt-limit talks,” with some demanding to spend more (not less!) for the military and cut more in domestic programs. In a final flourish, Senator Lindsay Graham declared that, without an increase for the military, the proposed budget would be “a win for China.” Whenever there is a little pushback on military spending, just bring in the Chinese boogeyman to ward off any hesitation!
7 This anti-China blitz is regularly served by columnists in the NY Times, the Washington Post, and other major news outlets in the US. On occasions, all too rare unfortunately, without letting up much on the China bashing some are sane enough to alert readers to the dangers of a nuclear confrontation and other negative repercussions. In recent weeks there were two such welcome exceptions, N. Krystof, How to Avoid a War With China, and D. Murphy, Like It or Not, America Needs Chinese Scientists. Less subtle is the way human-rights issues are magnified or understated by US government officials, depending on times and circumstances, to increase or decrease tensions with China – like a barometer for how the US wants to use and manage those tensions, notwithstanding lofty words of respect for democracy, individual rights, freedom of speech, etc. This sounds very cynical and manipulative, but consider for example the eloquent annual statements by the State Department, circulated by US embassies around the world, every June 4-th on the occasion of Tiananmen Square (1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre) and compare them with the inane statements, or in fact their absence, about the Rabaa massacre (August 2013 Rabaa massacre), even though the two massacres were roughly at the same scale of brutality and bloodshed. Of course, the difference is that General Sisi will get a pass as long as he is a reliable, though embarrassing, ally of the US and Israel.
8 All major polls in the US converge to the same conclusions: Record-Low 15% of Americans View China Favorably (Gallup), Some Americans’ views of China turned more negative after 2020, but others became more positive (Pew), and A growing share of Americans view China as an enemy of the United States (YouGov).
9 For the mindset at work in US foreign policy, consider Blinken’s speech on June 2, 2023, in Helsinki. It is a long self-serving rehash of talking points where the war in Ukraine today is presented in a continuity of events since NATO was formed in 1949, inviting listeners to understand Putin and Russia today by repeated references to Stalin and the USSR in years past. Tellingly, there is not a single mention of how NATO has been experienced by people in the Global South, especially after the end of the Cold War in 1991. In his review of the same speech, Seymour Hersh writes that Blinken is “a career hawk when it comes to Russia, [who] outdid himself in the fierceness of his commitment to the Ukraine war. Once again he was dismissive of any talk of a ceasefire—something desperately needed by an increasingly besieged Ukrainian army and citizenry.”
Assaf Kfoury is professor of mathematics at Boston University, of Lebanese/Palestinian background, and a member of MAPA’s Middle East Working Group. An earlier version of this piece appeared in the Arabic-language political news and analysis website, Daraj.