China and the United States, clashing titans

Image: Huang Jucai, Parrot and insect among pear blossoms
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By HUGO ALBUQUERQUE*

While the United States expands its siege on China, the Asian country launches a strategy based on self-defense and moderation

The international news is buzzing like never before. Or at least as it has not been since the end of the Cold War, when it was insisted that history had met its end. If the enigmatic rebellion of the Wagner Group in Russia stunned everyone, the visit of Tony Blinken, a strong man of American diplomacy, only opens a new round of the now tense relationship between the United States and China.

Deep down, the two facts refer to the same background: how globalization reached its limit; While Washington's power has never been stronger in the rich world, it has never been more in check in the “rest” of the world – or in the world treated as the rest. And let's say that globalization is a victim of itself, having formally fulfilled its fantasy of integration, revealing international inequalities and short-circuiting them.

Yes, it is in the pragmatic use of the gaps of Globalization that many poor countries were able to emerge, or even reconfigure themselves – like Russia, collapsed by the disastrous transition to capitalism in the 1990s or, even, like the titanic China and India, countries with a high population only comparable among themselves, they were able to recover from the colonial aggression of the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries.

Be that as it may, the economic gulf between rich and “poor” countries decreased, also changing the international correlation of political forces. For other reasons, the middle classes in central countries were hit, especially in the United StatesWhile its billionaires have risen as a super-elite toxic to democracy, workers in Asia have prospered.

Still, Africa and Latin America could see some light at the end of the tunnel, despite insistent political interference from rich countries in search of their natural resources. The summary of the opera is a supreme polarity – and more or less cold confrontation – between a unipolar world, led by the United States, and a multipolar world, which, by definition, is anchored in Asia.

Tony Blinken in Beijing

Heir to a veritable dynasty of State Department technocrats, Tony Blinken was too late for Beijing. Also in April of this year, in the middle of Ramadan, the Chinese mediated peace between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Beijing, to the surprise of international analysts. Then there was a veritable pilgrimage of European leaders – including Germany, France and Spain – to the Chinese capital.

Receptions for Europeans were dosed with haughtiness and austerity, contrasting with the welcome given to leaders of emerging countries like Brazil – with Chinese President Xi Jinping calling Lula “aOld friend” – and the embrace of Honduran President Xiomara Castro, who broke with Taiwan and recognized the People's Republic of China as the true China, after decades.

Xi Jinping ended up surrounded, with global leaders orbiting him and Beijing assuming its role in Chinese tradition, in which it is symbolically connected to the Pole star – called the Purple by the Chinese (zǐwēi [紫微]). For that reason, its nerve center is the Forbidden City. Purple (Zǐjìn Chéng [紫禁城]): and the Purple star is the one that remains fixed in the celestial plane while the others surround it.

None of this is to Washington's liking under the Biden administration, which has pressed partners to take the position of a naval encirclement around China while failing to roll back Trump-era anti-Chinese sanctions. The Sinophobic discourse, which has its racist and anti-communist form in Trump, finds a “democratic” and concerned about “human rights” equivalent in Biden.

Finally in Beijing, Tony Blinken waved with diplomatic clichés, which it is not known if they are friendly, threatening or, just, superb – like the declaration that “the United States does not want to change the Chinese system” or that “it does not support the independence of Taiwan", however much this contrasts with the acts, movements and US warlike provocations - naval, including - in the Pacific.

The reason for pointing to Tony Blinken's declarations as a Chinese victory is not that he will carry them out, but that Xi Jinping has enough unity in China to force a top American dignitary to retract his actions in his own words - affecting his credibility, either by demonstrating weakness in the eyes of some or cunning in the eyes of others.

The curious case of “Taiwanese independence” from China is an ace up the sleeve of Washington's geopolitics, this is an incredible international factoid: neither Taiwan claims itself as independent, nor the United States the island as such and, finally, most Taiwanese do not support local independence, according to unsuspected data from Taipei National Chengchi University.

China and Taiwan have been in economic and trade integration for a long time, with reunification almost an inertial consequence. But if the island became rich thanks to gigantic investments from the West during the Cold War, received a large part of the Chinese treasure taken by the government in Kuomintang in flight in the 1950s, today its growth rates have stagnated and Chinese technological centers are already preparing to overtake.

The fact of Taiwan's independence is a means of justifying, to an unsuspecting international public opinion, the presence of more and more Western warships, under American leadership, in the Pacific without the Chinese having made any threatening gesture towards the distant territory of the United States. United. The American military apparatus in the region is now joined by Australian and Philippine forces in a mixture of co-option and pressure.

By the way, since the end of World War II, the United States has maintained tens of thousands of soldiers in Japan and South Korea, countless military bases. Still, the mighty Seventh Fleet of the US Navy is headquartered in Japan, while sailing the waters of the Far East displaying the country's imperial hegemony. The difference is that in recent decades, the Chinese have engendered a powerful navy.

If Americanophiles in China, stunned by Xi Jinping's landslide victory at the last 20th Congress of the Communist Party, hoped that Blinken's outstretched hand would defuse independent foreign policy, nothing has been done. And either because of internal disarray or to erase the image of Blinken's statement in Asia, Joe Biden made strong anti-Chinese statements in an act of his re-election campaign, which doesn't help much.

Russia, the evident invisible in Sino-American relations

It is well known that Washington's opposition to the so-called special operation in Ukraine has nothing to do with, shall we say, newfound pacifism. They touch on a particular and specific interest of the United States in Europe and, on the other hand, express the doctrine by which Washington would hold the monopoly of force on an international scale – as the exceptional nation that the country judges itself in its cosmogony.

This means that Washington or “America” places itself in a far from humble position as an international plenipotentiary. This both to assert itself as the only nation that can launch military operations outside its territory and, still, to be the one that can authorize or veto those who can do the same in relation to third parties. As with the dollar as a yardstick for global trade, so is American leadership in war.

Russia, in the present context, affected both direct American interests in Eastern Europe and the doctrine of American exceptionalism. When the United States assumed that they would expand, without major setbacks or pain, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) over Ukraine – and consequently through the Black Sea –, they were surprised by the action of the Russian armed forces.

The entire original plan, which dates back to American interference in Kiev from 2014, is based on the idea of ​​expanding NATO's border with the Russians and, furthermore, access to space in the strategic Black Sea - which, in the context of the aims 2021, seemed to be retaliation for the start of operation of the Nordstream-2 gas pipeline, which would expand Russian participation in the coveted European energy market.

Joe Biden assumed that “devastating” sanctions would end Vladimir Putin’s leadership if he did something, but he forgot that he did not have the capacity to also sanction those who did not sanction Russia – especially the Chinese, if they simply did not want to launch sanctions against Moscow or, on the contrary, they would negotiate in their national currency the enormous Russian energy offer.

If Russian military action is also the target of criticism in the international community, its occurrence does not occur outside of a context of NATO advances, failing to comply with political agreements at the end of the Cold War. But neither did it come without salutary miscalculations: the special operation was not able to overcome the Ukrainian defenses, which bought enough time to receive money and ultramodern weaponry from the West.

Neither Putin managed to bend Ukraine with the military operation that began over a year ago, nor Biden managed to achieve his goal of economic asphyxiation – and, in a way, Biden shouldered the side effects of sanctions, seeing American economic growth itself fall, inflation to rise and, consequently, its rejection to increase on the verge of a re-election attempt.

However, in his favor, Biden had the opportunity in the conflict to make huge military expenditures, which are intended for Ukraine, but do not require the sacrifice of American soldiers - which favors him along with the powerful American military-industrial complex, without the cost to send citizens to some distant place on the planet. There, there are already Ukrainian troops, and the expenses exceed the Afghan War.

There are other “bonuses”, at the end of the conflict, Kiev will be indebted for decades, having a huge pent-up demand for reconstruction and a moral and political debt with the United States. Also, if inflation generates a bad effect in the short term in the country, this is also a way for companies to flatten the wages of their workers, thus expanding the profit margin, since the price of goods rises, but not the wage bill cost.

A part of European inflation, incidentally, has been caused by the growth of profits of large corporations during the Ukrainian conflict. Under the veil of the bellicose emergency, and its effects on energy costs, today an apocalyptic dynamic has developed in the old continent. This information, by the way, is from the unsuspected International Monetary Fund (IMF).

But the structural risks of this bold strategy continue to grow as the Ukrainian conflict drags on. This includes banking crises, social breakdown in the United States and threats of de-dollarization of the global economy – a distant speculation that has been accelerated in the last year –, which concerns the ability of the United States to manage its huge public debt in the long term.

Basically, Biden would demand that China, just to serve the American interest, apply sanctions against Russia, even though it is not involved in the conflict. And without the United States even considering suspending the sanctions applied by Trump, whose objective was precisely to win the trade war and achieve Chinese technological development – ​​that is the great contradiction, which comes from the United States.

Incidentally, this very contradiction emerged at this year's Shangri-La Dialogue. If before Shangri-La was a security conference involving Asia-Pacific countries, today it has become one of the few public forums in which the United States and China have maintained dialogue. This rule of silence, tempered by recurring military incidents, connects to US sanctions against senior Chinese officials for one big reason: Russia.

One of these rumored cases concerns the – recently appointed – Chinese Minister of Defense, General Li Shangfu, whose speaks at the Shangri-La Dialogue outlined the main Gordian knots of the Sino-American relationship: how the repeated “incidents” have happened very close to Chinese territorial waters and it is the United States, not China, that has been approaching the territory of others.

Sanctioned personally by the United States in 2018 – therefore, long before the Ukrainian conflict –, General Li committed the “sin” of leading the purchase of Russian combat aircraft by China, without any threat to the United States – that, as a head of the Chinese Equipment Development Department. American Interference, therefore, caught the eye of even the most inattentive spectator.

The severe personal sanction of General Li earned him the displeasure of Xi Jinping and the Chinese leadership, which among other things resulted in his promotion to Minister of Defense this year. A response from the newly installed Xi Jinping in his third presidential term. This obliges senior US officials to have to meet with a military sanctioned by themselves, tearing apart what matters in this sanction: its intimidating capacity.

Meanwhile, China maintains its position of active neutrality in relation to the Ukrainian conflict, which is less an agreement with the war, but a logic of co-responsibility of both belligerent parties – in this case, NATO and Russia. None of this sits well with Washington's narrative, which echoes widely in the rich world, but it is Beijing's narrative that has echoed across most countries and the global population.

acting without acting

According to the commandment of Dao De Jing, o Path and Virtue Classic, written millennia ago by Laozi, it takes act without acting (wéi wúwéi [為無為]). From there, it is possible to decode Xi Jinping's performance on the international stage. In addition to the act/stop binarism of the Western tradition, the Chinese present a possibility of denying action (“nothing” or “without”) based on movement – ​​in the sense that “strike” operates in our practice.

To this is added the Confucian doctrine of humanity (cold [仁] and Mozi's aversion to offensive warfare. In times of adaptation of marxism in China, Mao Zedong emphasized the doctrines of Laozi and Confucius as ancient idealistic dialectics – and Mozi as a “Chinese Heraclitus”. It is not surprising that Chinese Marxism acts towards the first two as Marx towards Hegel, and towards Mozi as the “Pre-Socratics”.

In other words, Xi Jinping and the current Chinese leadership invert Daoist and Confucian idealism and update Mozi, which is revealed in his action in foreign affairs. Instead of unipolarism, multipolarism; instead of war, trade and a frankly defensive response – without capitulation or precipitation – in the face of the naval siege that insinuates its territory, which is vital for humanity today.

However, the wear and tear of the parties in the Ukrainian conflict is inevitable, which already generates tensions in the two belligerent poles. On the one hand, the Wagner Group rebellion in Russia was, all the more, a dispute at the top of Russian power over Moscow's strategy: a hardening and radicalization of actions, with Russian national mobilization or a rehearsed retreat?

On the other hand, Joe Biden may have convinced public opinion of the need to support Ukraine, but that makes him a slave to his own strategy: since the Americans agree to this, now the current administration will have to show itself “strong” and "beat" the opponent. Today, that would be tantamount to “overthrowing Putin” – Washington's surprised reaction to the Wagner mutiny, however, proves that there are no contingency plans in place should Putin implode.

Putin, on the other hand, approaches the final truth, that the admission of a defeat for NATO or the formal declaration of war, with national mobilization. For the time being, he managed to re-accommodate the actors, taking the Wagner Group off the battlefield without punishment, sending its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin to Belarus. Meanwhile, under heavy criticism, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu remains in office.

The persistence of the conflict is the result of repeated bilateral miscalculations, whether by Washington or Moscow, and Kiev's oligarchic leadership is not concerned about the human costs of this, so we have a risk - and Zelensky has, for now, refused alternative proposals of peace, whether from the Vatican, China, Brazil or Indonesia. For the time being, he is only interested in the “peace of the West”, which is a process that involves the need for Putin's defeat.

In summary, nothing guarantees that a worsening of the conflict will not emerge and even Chinese pacifist realism will not be able to handle it – which is equally valid if the siege process against China rises, demanding a defensive response from Beijing. In this sense, the constant Chinese self-defensive responses will imply, even in a context of strategic defensiveness, some degree of conflict.

Everything still depends on an increasingly enigmatic variable, which is the direction of American foreign policy due to internal political development. The current scenario is one of increasing social inequality, division between countryside and city, rising racist discourse against internal minorities and lack of confidence in the system itself. Nothing guarantees that all this cannot lead to thoughtless actions.

Today, Democrats are betting on globalization under a halter, with a moderate decoupling, but the meaning of this is no less irrational than Trump's speech of total deglobalization. For now, as the American linguist Noam Chomsky points out, it is the Americans who have broken their agreements. in relation to Russia and also, in relation to China.

The Chinese strategy has, despite all this, been a sensible factor, which turns back the hands of the doomsday clock. Xi Jinping's massive inaction against the war is the equivalent of a global anti-war strike. And more than a conflict of powers, it is a conflict of different dispositions. Lula's Brazil has been an important element in this as well. There are limits, however, and we must all mobilize more strongly against the end of the world.

* Hugo Albuquerque is a jurist and editor of Autonomia Literária.


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