On a recent visit to the Pearl Harbor Memorial in Honolulu, I was struck by a statement on the museum wall. It read:
“Conflict is brewing in Asia. The old world order is changing. Two new powers, the United States and Japan, are rising to take leading roles on the world stage. Both seek to further their own national interests. Both hope to avoid war. Both have embarked on courses of action that will collide at Pearl Harbor.”
The wall was referring to the collision that culminated in the surprise attack by waves of Japanese warplanes on December 7, 1941. The statement caught my attention because by exchanging “China” for “Japan,” it could easily apply to the bilateral tension that’s simmering today between the US and China.
Sadly, we Americans seem to be heading for another collision, having learned nothing from history. After World War II, the Chinese fought the Americans to a draw in Korea despite owning vastly inferior weapons and firepower compared with those available to our troops and other UN forces.
Next, we made up a bogus Gulf of Tonkin incident to justify charging into Vietnam. Despite wanton use of napalm, Agent Orange, cluster bombs and other innovations to deadly effect, we lost the war and had to get out in disgrace.
Then for one brief brilliant moment in recent history, our Cold War adversary, the former Soviet Union, imploded. For the first time, we won a war without having to fire a shot. We became the only shining kingdom on top of the hill.
We began to hope that a peace dividend would make possible the realization of the American dream. But that flicker of optimism was quashed by a group in the Washington establishment who called themselves neoconservatives. They began to agitate and promote the idea that the opportunity was nigh for the US to become the sole surviving superpower and seize the mantle to rule the world.
To show pointed disdain, I proposed calling the proponents of these ideas neoconservative nincompoops, abbreviated as “neoconpoops.” I was disappointed that the handle did not gain popularity. To add insult to injury, these diehard neoconpoops moved from the fringe to the center of power when George W Bush was elected president of the United States.
9/11 became a sad legacy
Then came September 11, 2001. With the help of his neoconpoop advisers, W promptly launched a Global War on Terror (GWOT). We invaded Afghanistan because Osama bin Laden was supposed to be hiding there. We did not find him in Afghanistan, but our troops are still there more than two decades later.
We got at twofer by invading Iraq at about the same time. The pretext was to accuse Saddam Hussein of owning weapons of mass destruction. We did not find any WMD but we “shocked and awed” the Iraqis, found Saddam and lynched him. And, by the way, our troops are still in Iraq.
With our heavy presence in the Middle East, we assumed that we could influence many admiring countries in the region to emulate what we called democracy. The Arab Spring that ensued seemed to justify our expectation that authoritarian leaders would be toppled.
But except for possibly Tunisia, the movement did not succeed other than causing death and destruction.
With the help of our military, the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was defeated and torn to pieces by a street mob. For sure Gaddafi was not a supporter of democracy, but his rule provided education, health care and housing for the Libyan people and raised per capita income to more than US$11,000.
What has happened to Libya since Gaddafi? Just a constant state of civil war and misery for civilians. Safe to say that democratic reform and free elections are far from the minds of the people hoping just to survive another day.
Somehow, we got away cheap on this one. We got rid of the bad guy and lost just one ambassador and three other American casualties, and then we got out. We didn’t get our hands on Libyan oil but we didn’t leave any boots on the ground, either.
We also got smarter at fighting proxy wars and not putting our soldiers at risk. Under president Barack Obama, we started to use killer drones to rub out presumed al-Qaeda bad guys. Civilians who got killed were simply treated as collateral damage without so much as an expression of regret – such as, sorry you got in the way.
President Donald Trump elevated the use of drones to another level by assassinating Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian war hero and second only to Iran’s Supreme Leader in prominence. He was killed at Baghdad airport along with other Iraqis and some Iranian nationals. The mission was carried out remotely and did not put any American at risk.
We haven’t even mentioned the disturbances in Syria, Yemen, Egypt and other countries in that part of the world. Suffice to say that wherever we go, we have been very good at creating instability and causing mayhem. Our intentions were always lofty, to promote democracy, but the consequences invariably took a toll on innocent lives – and worldwide refugee crises.
It’s true that a decade after 9/11 we finally found bin Laden hiding in Pakistan and killed him. However, he had the satisfaction of seeing our over-the-top response and self-inflicted cost of lives and property exceed his wildest expectations.
This has been a long but I feel necessary review of recent history to bring into context the current status of international relations with China under President Joe Biden’s administration.
Trend set by Anchorage summit
The first summit meeting of the Biden administration’s top diplomats with those of China held in Anchorage, Alaska, last month was a strong indicator that nothing has changed in the way we Americans think about China. It’s almost as if our secretary of state, Tony Blinken, retrieved some notes from the trashcan discarded by outgoing secretary Mike Pompeo and carried on from there.
Our Mr Blinken dispensed with the customary diplomatic niceties and proceeded straight to accusing China of human-rights offenses in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan, cyberattacks and economic coercion among other offenses. Yang Jiechi, China’s leading foreign-policy official and a member of the Politburo, replied in kind.
Yang said the US was not in a position to criticize China. America has a history of genocide from the eradication of native Americans to the persecution and lynching of black Americans. When he mentioned the Black Lives Matter movement, we were reminded of the white police officer slowly squeezing the life out of George Floyd with his knee on Floyd’s neck.
We have to admit that Yang had a valid point. Since China began its economic reform, it has been working steadily on poverty alleviation regardless of the ethnicity of the people being helped. The only government “bias” was to assist the most accessible first and the more remote ones later when roads and the Internet were put in place.
Today, China proudly claims that it has no one living below the poverty line. Many developing countries envy China’s success and are seeking to emulate its model of helping their rural poor and raising their standard of living.
So far as I know, we haven’t alleviated poverty for anyone in the US. The top 1% have improved their lot and grown wealthier, but the bottom 50% have suffered reduced circumstances. Since most people in the ghettos are people of color, America’s economic divide has made them a lot worse off.
More than 90% of the people in China approve of their government, support its policies and express optimism for their future. The surveys backing this are done by reputable third parties, such as Pew Research, and are not paid for or coerced by an authoritarian government.
In the US, any time the sitting federal government gets 50% popular approval it is considered to be doing well. Our model of democracy says the right to carry a gun, to wear a mask in public places or to receive vaccinations against Covid-19 are important political issues and not matters of public health. Further, the most urgent issue at hand right now is how legally to deny certain Americans the right to vote.
Biden’s China team seems oblivious to the fact that much has changed between the US and China since the financial crisis of 2008 caused by fraudulent financing of mortgage swaps by Wall Street.
China’s disenchantment began in 2008
China’s disappointment in the US and loss of confidence in Wall Street have meant a loss of faith in the American dollar. In lieu of quantitative easing American-style, China invested heavily in its infrastructure, resulting in superhighways and the world’s largest network of high-speed rail.
China then applied its experience and expertise in building infrastructure to a world-girding Belt and Road Initiative. At last count, China has started 2,800 projects in about 100 countries helping them build and improve their infrastructure.
Given the total estimated investment value of $3.7 trillion, the participating nations could not hope to see new roads, railways, ports or airports without China’s help in financing and project-management expertise.
The best we in the US can do in response is to warn these countries to beware that China is promoting debt traps.
Along with economic cooperation on infrastructure projects, China has also promoted open global trade. Before Biden was sworn in to the White House, China concluded the biggest free-trade agreement with the ASEAN+5 (China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand) bloc, and a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with the European Union.
As I said in my January Asia Times commentary, “The community of nations has moved on while, thanks to Trump, the US has been left at the station. It’s unrealistic to expect that the US under the new Biden administration can simply pick up from where the US was before the Trump debacle.”
Unfortunately, the Biden administration seems to think that all we need to do is to rally our old allies to counter China’s rise. To justify our continuing attacks on China, it’s not beneath our officials, abetted by our mainstream media, to resort to lies and fabrications – another Gulf of Tonkin in the making.
The most popular topic recently is to accuse China of committing genocide against Uighurs in Xinjiang, despite the fact that the population of Uighurs in China has been increasing and not declining.
However, it is a fact that economically Uighurs have done poorly as an ethnic group. Part of the effort to help them out of poverty was for the Chinese government to offer vocational training and to encourage young women from large multiple-sibling families to accept factory jobs elsewhere in China. The idea was to broaden a woman’s view of the world and raise her life expectations, in addition to earning a better income.
The prospect of leaving her family for some faraway city is likely a wrenching and traumatic experience for a young girl whose culture indoctrinates her from birth to prepare for marrying young, having babies and toiling on the family farm for the rest of her life.
Often, the factory recruiter would bring along an older Uighur woman who could describe her experiences in a factory and how her savings enabled her to help her parents enjoy better lives and even move into a Chinese city to live with her.
Chinese documentary becomes a BBC exposé
Beijing-based broadcaster CGTN made a documentary on the process of recruiting Uighur women for factory jobs elsewhere in China. By judiciously omitting certain parts of the video footage, the British Broadcasting Corporation transformed the documentary into an exposé of China forcing young Uighur women into slave labor.
Thanks to “Numuves,” who produced a YouTube video comparing the original Chinese version and the adulterated BBC version, we can see the BBC’s adroit skill in misrepresenting the truth.
Readers can view both versions and see how the BBC can shamelessly stoop to distort and fabricate in order to demonize China. Unfortunately, the BBC is hardly the only member of mainstream media to help the Western governments blacken China’s reputation and enhance our superior-than-thou stance.
YouTube is replete with accusations of The New York Times and other “reputable” members of the media being guilty of slanting reports to reinforce the anti-China bias.
Thus Biden, with bipartisan support and the coordinated distortion from the mainstream media, can confidently declare that China’s rise to become a world superpower will not happen on his watch.
In reality, China’s rise to becoming the most powerful economy is inexorable and only a matter of time. Whether it will happen during Biden’s watch really depends on how long he expects to be the US president. We hardly have a knee on China’s neck.
The day after the frosty and contentious meeting in Anchorage, Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Guilin, China. They expressed solidarity in their views and oppose the “unilateral bullying” by Washington.
Wang Yi then went on to Tehran to sign a 25-year agreement with Iran worth $400 billion. China’s cash infusion to Iran will relieve the pressure of American sanctions and in exchange, oil from Iran will enhance China’s energy security.
The China-Russia-Iran alliance certainly should give us pause. We gave up trying to beat the Taliban in Afghanistan after 20 years, and that certainly shouldn’t give us confidence to take on the triumvirate. Nevertheless, the Biden team seems determined to follow Trump’s script for confrontation with China.
No issue is as sensitive and fraught with danger as Taiwan. Yet we seem determined to raise the tension over the waters around Taiwan and dare China to step over the red line.
God help us if we succeed in triggering a collision with China. Most of us won’t likely be around to see how the collision ends.
George Koo retired from a global advisory services firm where he advised clients on their China strategies and business operations. Educated at MIT, Stevens Institute and Santa Clara University, he is the founder and former managing director of International Strategic Alliances. He is currently a board member of Freschfield’s, a novel green building platform.