The Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Photo: Wikipedia

A new bill in the United States will only add extra weight in Beijing to fears that the “rules-based” international order American politicians like to talk about is really about keeping the world’s most populous country down.

The America Competes Act of 2022, passed by the US House of Representatives last week, comes in at a staggering 2,912 pages. It promises tens of billions of dollars for the domestic semiconductors industry, reinforcements for Washington’s military presence in the Asia-Pacific region, intensified US cooperation with the three other members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Australia, India and Japan), and a dangerous expansion of diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

The document vows to expand efforts to promote “democracy” in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang – and open new Chinese-language-learning centers named after the late activist Liu Xiaobo to replace China’s official Confucius Institutes.

Its suggestions on Taiwan have elicited a particularly sharp rebuke from Beijing.

In language reminiscent of the Cold War that is bound to raise fears that US efforts to constrain China’s rise are spilling over into the Global South, the document promises to ramp up efforts to “counter” Beijing’s presence in Latin America and the Middle East. And it calls for a reassessment  of China’s political, economic and security activity in Africa.

As much as members of both main parties in the US appear to want it, genuine economic decoupling from China has so far taken place more in theory than practice. But the new House-backed bill suggests there could be a drastic escalation in that direction. 

First, it aims to reduce the time it takes to delist Chinese companies from US stock exchanges from three years to two. 

Second, it calls for the introduction of a “whole-of-government” screening process for outbound investments that will further restrict Chinese access to American technology and markets. 

The significance of this second point should not be understated. Analysts at Rhodium Group suggest that 43% of US foreign direct investment to China over the past two decades would have been covered under the document. 

“In addition to slowing new investment,” the advisory group warns, the “new regime could also pressure US businesses to reassess existing operations in China because of potential effects on revenue, profits, and market share.”

The document has not been signed into law and will now form the basis of the Democrats’ negotiations with the Senate. But President Joe Biden is clear about the bill’s intentions. In an official White House statement, he said the goal is “to show China and the rest of the world that the 21st century will be the American century.”

This cuts to the heart of the matter. 

When then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton announced America’s “pivot to Asia” back in 2011, she did so only one year after China overtook Japan to become the world’s second-biggest economy.

Chinese President Xi Jinping assumed office a year later, in 2012, amid a record US trade deficit with China of nearly $300 billion and bubbling tensions in the World Trade Organization.

Since then, the US-China relationship has gone from bad to worse. 

By the time Biden took office in January 2021, what began as $50 billion in trade tariffs under his predecessor Donald Trump two years earlier had morphed into a full-fledged containment strategy spanning economic, diplomatic, military and technological dimensions. 

Just last week, reports surfaced in Japan of a possible new alliance between Washington and Tokyo that would establish a multilateral framework to restrict the export of advanced technology, including semiconductors, to Beijing.

If confirmed, it would be only the latest example of how the current US administration has intensified the foundations for a new cold war that escalated under Trump.

Since taking office, Biden has overseen sanctions on Chinese officials, blacklisted and targeted Chinese tech companies, significantly ramped up diplomatic pressures on Beijing and increased military maneuverers off the coast of China.

The trade tariffs imposed during the Trump years remain in place, while military spending is up, with a record $777.7 billion defense bill recently passed by Congress. AUKUS, a new military pact comprising the US, the United Kingdom and Australia, risks unleashing a nuclear arms race in the Asia-Pacific region. 

As Washington coordinates with its allies in the Group of Seven, efforts have intensified to rally a broader anti-China front. These actions are framed through a binary democracy-versus-authoritarianism logic and the myth of a rules-based international order. The recent Summit for Democracy is a case in point.

But when US politicians talk of a rules-based order, what they actually mean is an international order led by the United States. And while policy wonks and analysts based in the American capital talk of “values,” these tend to obfuscate the harsh logic of “interests” and the brute threat of economic and extra-economic force.

This simple but elementary feature of the world system, backed up by events in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere over the past couple of decades alone, is perpetually ignored by liberal elites who uncritically absorb and reproduce this worldview. 

By framing the 21st century as one in which democracies are pitted in a life-and-death struggle against authoritarian political systems, their pretensions mask the underlying logics of global power.

Belief in a rules-based order is precisely that: a belief and an act of faith, a leap of the imagination into a cartoonish realm that has not only never existed, but whose idealism conceals what some call the “darker side of Western modernity.” 

At its core, it is fundamentally quasi-religious: a nice story we tell ourselves to cloak the terror of the geo-historical record.

The next decade or two are likely to define the Chinese century. Its leaders project strength, something its detractors are all too willing to contribute to. The former affirms the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” on the one hand, the latter warns of the growing “threat” of the Chinese superpower on the other. 

But in developmental terms, the country remains firmly in the semi-periphery with no guarantee of ever entering the core of advanced economies. 

If the past few years are anything to go by, the rules-based order Washington seeks to uphold will do everything it can to make sure that never happens.

Daniel Alan Bey

Daniel Alan Bey is a graduate student based in Suzhou, China, where he studies Chinese politics. He has nearly a decade of experience as a journalist working in Indonesia, Germany, Ecuador, the UK and China. Follow him on Twitter @dabcule