US intentions towards China



If the US is still interested in the world economic and political order, and it certainly should be, it must be open to negotiation for peaceful change.


To what extent will rising tensions with China affect US economic policy? After a series of sanctions and openly discriminatory laws, while measures are being applied on American investments in China and speeches about war are increasingly common in the US (check out the article by Michael Klare), the Biden administration knows it needs to clarify its economic relations with the country that is the US's largest trading partner outside of North America.

Following the spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which took place between April 10 and 16, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen made her first major statement on economic relations with China since 2021. tone, his message is intended to clarify and calm speculation and debate about the White House's motives and intentions. However, in the current situation, it is far from obvious that this clarification actually contributes to appeasement.

The scenario that Janet Yellen rejects is the so-called Thucydides trap,[1] but the reasons why she does so are revealing. The idea that a “conflict between the United States and China” is “increasingly inevitable” is based, he insists, on a false assumption. This perspective is “motivated by the fear, shared by some Americans, that America is in decline. And that China would be about to surpass us as the main economic power in the world, causing a clash between the two states.”

In that case, the United States would seek military confrontation to avoid the unfavorable shift in the balance of power related to China's phenomenal economic growth. That makes no sense, assures Janet Yellen, because the US economy, thanks to its liberal institutions, its culture of innovation and the wise governance of the Biden administration, is in good health.

“The United States remains the most dynamic and prosperous economy in the world.” That is why, insists Janet Yellen, the United States has no reason to try to “stifle China's economic and technological modernization” or to continue with the great decoupling that is underway, but still in its infancy. The economic power of the United States, continues the Secretary of the Treasury, "is increased" by its relations with "friends and close partners in all regions of the world, including the Indo-Pacific". Thus, the United States "has no reason to fear healthy economic competition with any country." And Janet Yellen concludes: "China's economic growth is not incompatible with US economic leadership."


It is worth dwelling on what this entails. Conflict is not inevitable because the United States is doing well. This means that China can develop without threatening US economic leadership. But what if it's not like that? Janet Yellen doesn't specify what that would entail. However, in that eventuality, although Janet Yellen leaves little room for doubt, all possibilities would remain open. Even today, even though the Biden administration says it is confident in the US economic prospects, Janet Yellen insists: "As in all of our foreign affairs, national security is of paramount importance in our relations with China."

From a certain point of view, it is obvious. No one responsible will say otherwise. Security is the basic function of states. But it all depends on the extent of your approach to national security and your degree of trust. And if the priority of national security in foreign affairs must be stated loudly, there is a problem.

For Janet Yellen, it is obvious that the United States has the right to define its national security globally. She claims, for example, that defending Ukraine against Russian aggression is among the United States' "most pressing national security concerns." Anyone who chooses to ignore its sanctions against Russia and fall under US jurisdiction is exposed to serious consequences. Furthermore, as the United States has decided to deny certain technologies to the Chinese military, it imposes sanctions and trade restrictions accordingly.

Thus, the strong and self-reliant United States has no reason to oppose China's economic and technological modernization, except in all areas that the American national security establishment, the most gigantic in the world, defines as being of overriding national interest. For this to be nothing more than hypocrisy, it is necessary to imagine that we live in an ideal world in which the technology, industrial capacity and trade that are determinants of national security are secondary to economic and technological modernization in general.

Janet Yellen only reinforces this conception by insisting that the measures taken by the United States against China will be very targeted. But, as everyone knows, those specific measures have so far included: massive efforts to stop the world leader in 5G technology, Huawei; sanctions against the entire supply chain of electronic chips (integrated circuits); and the inclusion of most of China's top research universities in the list of institutions with which US agencies must strictly limit their relationships.


Furthermore, to add to the perplexity, while Janet Yellen insists that national security sanctions tell us nothing about US intentions regarding Chinese growth, she praises legislation passed during the Biden administration, particularly the Chip Reduction Act. and the Inflation Reduction Act, which include strongly anti-Chinese elements as highly beneficial to the future prosperity of the United States.

As a result, the United States welcomes China's economic modernization and would refuse to fall into the Thucydides trap as long as China's development continues along lines that do not affect US leadership and national security. The attitude of the United States will be all the more benevolent as it succeeds in ensuring its own national prosperity and, precisely, its pre-eminence in these areas.

What appears to be a reasonable and accommodating statement is, in fact, very puzzling. China must accept the delimitation of the status quo established by the United States. If it fails to respect the boundaries drawn by Washington between harmless prosperity and historically important technological development, it should expect massive sanctions.[2]

Janet Yellen is to be thanked for making this point so clear. But how does Washington expect Beijing to react? China is neither Japan nor Germany after 1945. Compared to the United States, if the question of "leadership" is posed, parity is the least that Beijing can aspire to. The status quo that Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen takes for granted obviously cannot be legitimate in the long run. As Beijing has stated, it aspires to a fundamental reorganization of international relations, so that the American discourse on leadership no longer remains relevant. China is not the only major Asian power to share this view either. India's point of view is no different.

In Washington, this position is met with utter incomprehension, even a sense of wounded pride. Does China not understand that it owes its growth to a US-led order? Rebelling against that order, says Janet Yellen bluntly, is not in China's best interests. Janet Yellen is right when she says that a conflict between China and the United States is not inevitable. It depends on the measures taken by both sides.

But it's hard to see how his vision, in which the United States claims the right to define which trajectory of Chinese economic growth is acceptable or not, can form a basis for peace. If the United States is still interested in the world economic and political order, and it certainly should be, it must be open to negotiation for peaceful change. Otherwise, it only seeks conflict.

*Adam Tooze is professor of history at Columbia University (USA). Author, among other books, of The price of destruction (Record).

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado

Originally published on the portal Foreign Policy.

Translator's notes

[1] Concept used in international relations to designate a situation in which a dominant power goes to war against an emerging power. The first is driven by fear of the rise of the second as a power.

[2] No Financial Times April 24, 2023, Gideon Rachman notes during a trip to Washington that “it was surprising how commonplace discussions of a US-China war had become. This discussion is fueled by loose statements by US generals pondering possible dates for the start of hostilities.

Subsequently, Gideon Rachman insists on the US Indo-Pacific deterrence policy: “The Biden administration believes this is going well. He highlights the substantial increase in Japan's military spending, the signing of the Aukus Treaty between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, the growing closeness in relations between Washington and Delhi, the strengthening of the Quad, which connects America, India, Japan and Australia , and the Philippines' decision to allow the United States easier access to bases near Taiwan. As one US official puts it with quiet satisfaction: “We scored a lot of points”.

According to Rachman, the military deployment has the function of "changing Xi's calculations about the costs and benefits of resorting to military force". But at the same time, “Americans are trying to assuage fears that they are seeking to damage the Chinese economy. The deep economic ties that unite the United States and China are one of the obvious differences between today's rivalries and the Cold War."

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