Repeating the tired old anti-China rhetoric of the Asian giant threatening Western values, stealing US jobs and technology, committing “genocide” against its ethnic minorities, reneging on its commitment to the “one country, two systems” stance in Hong Kong, threatening Taiwan and a host of other “evil” deeds, the newly installed US administration held an inaugural head-of-state meeting with its Quadrilateral Security Dialogue partners – Australia, India and Japan – a couple of weeks ago.
Many analysts interpreted the meeting as the first step toward forming an “Asian NATO,” a formal military alliance to counter China’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.
The four members of the Quad are the US, Japan, India and Australia.
Japan has no economic or geopolitical reasons to confront China. On the contrary, it actually needs China to pull its economy out of the decades-long deflationary spiral now made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic and an aging and declining population. Indeed, it is the Chinese market, serving both as the maker and consumer of Japanese products, that has been largely responsible for preventing Japan from sinking deeper into the hole.
Indeed, it could be argued that the US was largely responsible for Japan’s economic and geopolitical malaise. Forcing Japan to sign the Plaza Accord in 1985, under which the country had to appreciate the yen and agree to restrict exports, caused the Japanese economy to decline, because it was hugely export-dependent.
Japan’s economic demise accelerated, in part, because of crippling US tariffs of up to 100% and flawed financial policies that allowed banks to make risky real-estate loans.
As if these were not bad enough, the US required Japan to pay it billions of dollars in “protection” money each year and buy hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of US weapons. That money could have been spent instead on reviving the protracted period of relative economic stagnation.
Furthermore, the US set a “time bomb” in the China-Japan relationship by reneging on the 1946 Cairo Declaration, demanding that Japan return all territories it annexed from their rightful owners before 1945.
Without consulting China or Taiwan, the US retained control over the Diaoyu Islands (called the Senkakus by Japan) after the Communists won the civil war in 1949, perhaps because neither side was in a position to reclaim these “rocks.” However, Washington later turned the administration of these islands over to Tokyo (in 1972), again without consulting Beijing or Taipei.
From this perspective, Japan should cooperate with rather than fight China. It was, in part, China’s huge purchase of Japanese products, estimated at around 20% annually, that prevented the economy from sinking deeper.
One can only image what the Chinese and Japanese economies would be like if the two countries worked with each other. Besides, China did not cause Japan’s economic doldrums, Tokyo’s own policies and the US did.
India might also be reluctant to join an “Asian NATO,” and for good reasons. In addition to risking its national interests by formalizing a military alliance with the US, India has ambitions to become a global superpower and does not want to jeopardize relations with Russia, thus preferring an “independent” China policy.
Moreover, China has the capital and technological resources to help Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi carry out his “Make in India” industrial policy of transforming India into a global manufacturing powerhouse.
Australia might be the most willing to join an “Asian NATO” to contain China, but unfortunately, geography and economic realities are in the way. Selling almost a third of its exports to China, being the largest recipient of Chinese international students and tourists and being located far away from Europe and North America, Australia has discovered that toeing the US line incurred more pain than gain.
Losing a big chunk of its exports to China inflicted more economic damage than the Australian government was willing to admit, prompting it (and New Zealand) not to join the other three members of the “Five Eyes” grouping (Canada, the UK and the US) to sanction Chinese officials for “abusing” human rights in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Australia also was unwilling to accuse China of committing “genocide” in Xinjiang.
Outside the Quad
Other Asian countries such as South Korea are even less enthusiastic about choosing sides: China is not only their economic lifeline, they have no interest in being part of the battleground for any US-China military conflict.
It might be that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s realization of the difficulty of recruiting allies or “like-minded” countries to join the US in forming an “Asian NATO” prompted him to say the US was not forcing the Quad members to choose sides. He knows very well that is like asking allies to forgo their national interests to advance those of America: sacrificing economic recovery and risking security to buy US weapons and keep its economy afloat.
What’s more, for all of the Chinese development model’s flaws, it managed to register 2.3% growth in 2020. That figure is expected to increase to 6% in 2021 and beyond thanks to China’s “dual circulation” strategy and opening up to the world, indicating that China could be the engine of economic growth and stability for years to come.
The folly of risking war
Western countries and other so-called democracies, on the other hand, remain stuck in the pandemic crisis, staying above water only by quantitative easing. Besides, no credible evidence has been provided to substantiate the US allegations against China.
It is also unclear whether the US wants a war against China over a perceived threat, because that could lead to mutual assured destruction at worst or incur unthinkable losses of lives and property at best. No one knows the dire consequences of provoking a fight against China or any other country based on manufactured information better than Joe Biden, who has decades of experience in the foreign-policy realm as a senator, vice-president and now president.
A case in point is the Iraq war. Biden approved that fray though he probably knew the allegation that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction had been invented by the George W Bush administration.
Moreover, the charge was disputed by United Nations and US weapons inspectors, but that did not matter – the US went ahead and invaded Iraq, culminating in the loss of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, destroying the country, and causing massive refugee issues and the loss of thousands of US lives.
Provoking China into war based on subjective or false claims, no matter how skillfully the Biden administration tries to spin them into “fact,” would be the worst nightmare America, China and the world could endure if it escalated into a nuclear exchange.
Given that nightmare scenario, it is beyond comprehension that Biden or any future US president will start a nuclear war just to be “tough” on China or promote the interests of the few business and political elites that benefit from the conflict. History would never forgive them.
Talking and being “tough” on China are two different things, as Biden’s predecessors discovered. Former president Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” policy of recruiting allies to contain China in the Asia-Pacific region turned into a hollow threat. His successor Donald Trump’s trade and technology wars made the US worse off than China.
China, in fact, became stronger because of the “tough” US policies because they were largely responsible for China’s technological advancement and economic development.
Taking the debate to its logical conclusion, Biden will be wise to find ways to reset the US-China relationship, arguably the most complicated and important in the world and for each other. Whether Biden likes it or not, many US firms are highly dependent on China as the producer and end user of their goods, the reason thousands of enterprises are suing the US government for imposing tariffs on Chinese-made products.
The fact of the matter is China is too big, economically and militarily, to be coerced. China can hit back, as the recent high-level US-China talks in Alaska and tit-for-tat sanctions against EU officials and organizations attested.
Furthermore, the communist giant will not cave to US demands, because it has no reason to. China’s only “sin” is that its development model succeeded in making the country what it is today: reaching a position of “doing it my way” whether the US likes it or not. In this sense, cooperation is the only way to move forward.
Ken Moak taught economic theory, public policy and globalization at university level for 33 years. He co-authored a book titled China’s Economic Rise and Its Global Impact in 2015. His second book, Developed Nations and the Economic Impact of Globalization, was published by Palgrave McMillan Springer.