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Commentary :: International
US and China: International Policy as a Zero-Sum Game
06 Nov 2017
After a half-year in office, a coherent foreign policy strategy under Donald Trump is not in sight. The US and China have very different ideas about creating prosperity and security. Approximately 600 million Chinese gained relative prosperity in the last 40 years.

By Ilka A.

[This article published in a Luxemburg special edition August 2017 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

After a half year in office, a coherent foreign policy strategy under Donald Trump is not in sight. This is true first of all for the China policy of the US. In the presidential election campaign, Trump criticized China for its economic policy. China destroys jobs in the US because it manipulates its currency, breaks trade rules, and circumvents labor- and environmental standards. In one of his speeches, he bellowed: “We cannot let China rape our country because that is what it is doing” (quoted according to Diamond 2016). In December 2016 – after assuming office – Trump said – after a call of the Taiwanese president Cai Tingwen he considered the “One-China-policy” [1] as a negotiation chip for the renegotiation of economic relations with China (Gray/ Navarro 2016).

The president has already moved away from this position. After generally demonizing China in the election campaign, he spoke of a “tremendous meeting” after his meeting with the Chinese president Xi Jinping.

Since then, Trump’s foreign policy has fluctuated between interventionism and isolationism. He irritates allies and rivals with erratic statements and ensures general uncertainty in the Asian Pacific region with his unpredictability. This could lead to dangerous escalation in several lines of conflict.

Baselines of an “America-first” foreign policy include economic nationalism, the greatest possible security and screening of the US territory, military strength and an “amoral transactionalism” [2] in relations with other countries. How all this will translate concretely in US-China policy is completely open.

Experts all over the world speculate whether and how far the US president will turn away from Barack Obama’s Asia policy of the last years. Although Trump’s awkward and provocative statements toward China and his simplistic zero-sum thinking in international relations are strikingly different from Obama’s international appearances, the substance of his demands is far less outside the mainstream of US debates than many European observers think. Trump’s geo-strategic orientation for the Asian Pacific region is a brash, exaggerated populist caricature of what was long discussed in US strategic security circles and conservative think tanks and was also in large part the foreign policy of the US under Obama and his secretary of state Hillary Clinton. The status quo continues.

Contextualizing Trump and his foreign policy ideas seems necessary in a double sense to classify the China policy of the new administration. Firstly, his foreign policy positions must be seen in the context of the US geopolitical China discourse of the last years. Secondly, the “Trump phenomenon” itself and the fact that he could win the presidency as a populist outsider must be seen in the context of the crisis of the US political system.

Different ideas about security policy

The US and China have very different ideas about creating prosperity and security both in the Asian Pacific area and globally. In the Asian Pacific region, the US has had a position of uncontested dominance for 70 years and considers this indispensable for its predominance in the region and world like its defensive alliances with Japan, South Korea, and Australia. US dominance means concretely the US can exercise its maritime power unrestrictedly up to the 12-nautical mile limit of every nation in the Asian Pacific region including China.

China has never accepted this situation. The Chinese government is convinced there must be a power balance in the region that on one hand takes into account Chinese security needs and on the other hand promotes the economic development of China and the region altogether. From a Chinese perspective, the US cannot loudly guarantee security for its allies and not consider the legitimate security interests of countries outside its alliances. Seen this way, the US is not a neutral mediator, arbiter, or unbiased power as it often describes its role in the Pacific area. Actually, the US is an interest-guided party in Asia that produces even more tensions instead of contributing to stability. Since time immemorial, the Chinese demand was that Asia needs a comprehensive security architecture based on the security interests of all the countries.

US dominance in the Asian-Pacific region and Chinese criticism are not new phenomena. In the past, the two countries have never fallen into a serious conflict with each other. This is not because China for a long time did not have either the political, economic and military capacities or motivation to seriously challenge the US predominance at its front door.

However, the situation has fundamentally changed in the last years. China rose to the world’s largest political economy in a historically unparalleled short time. Embedded in and driven by neoliberal globalization, China today has more resources and more interests abroad and uses these resources very self-confidently to carry out its interests.

China has relied entirely on a non-military foreign policy and a distinctive foreign trade diplomacy since the beginning of its world economic ascent. China’s course appears in a blend of its own initiatives (building new international or regional institutions like the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank or the “One Belt, One Road” initiative) and greater rights in existing forums (like the G20). If the Chinese government was restrained in foreign policy in the past, it is now less and less willing to accept US predominance in the Asian Pacific region. It demands transforming the regional and global order led by the US since it is convinced US dominance cannot guarantee any security for China and the region in the long-term.

Already in the 1990s, China’s rise sparked a foreign policy discussion in the US that led to strategic security circles and think tanks and spilled over again and again in the wider public. That unavoidable conflict between the dominant and the up-and-coming power was uppermost. This debate is grounded on the argument that the US as the dominant power must resist China’s ascent while China must assert itself. This debate is based on very spongy and historically dubious theoretical assumptions about what superpowers do and refrain from doing. There is no reason to assume superpowers – up-and-coming and status quo powers – must gain “hard power dominance” at any price. History provides no basis for this argument, especially for China. Nevertheless, this conception of rival powers is an essential basis for US foreign policy strategies.

Over the years, the debate in the US about “up-and-coming and dominant powers” always had superimposed variants: a conservative-military variant that sought China’s containment through a military presence and military alliances with old and new partners in the region, a liberal-economic variant to counter China’s increasing influence through trade agreements and a “populist” variant.

The populist variant that was advocated by conservative think tanks and media like Fox News and Breitbart News was a crude and often inconsistent mixture from the conservative-militarist and liberal-economic variants. Their representatives saw all of China’s political, economic and other successes as signs of the US’ weakness and imminent decline. This variant was motivated by domestic politics and had no clear foreign policy strategy. The Obama administration was unable or unwilling to defend the vital interests of the US. China offered a welcome projections surface for polemical attacks against liberal America that became morally decadent, politically feeble, and economically over-regulated and therefore could not oppose China’s ascent. This populist variant that always resonated in the strategic China-debates as an undertone has now rinsed to the surface with Trump. Its argumentative thrust is still oriented in domestic politics to an extremely polarized electorate.

“Pivot to Asia”

Although much more differentiated and strategically developed, President Barack Obama’s Asia policy was based on the concept of the up-and-coming and the dominant superpowers. In 2012. Obama labeled his foreign policy “Pivot to Asia” and later spoke of “rebalancing.” This foreign policy rebalancing had the goal of the US remaining the dominant power in Asia and China’s political rise being defined by Washington, not Peking. At a state visit in Australia, Obama said: “American leadership in the Asia Pacific area will always be a fundamental focus of my foreign policy.”

The new orientation integrated conservative-militarist and liberal-economic approaches and translated them into concrete measures of China’s containment. The Presence of US Marines in the Pacific was strengthened. 2800 US Marines were stationed in Australian Darwin while alliances and several new military agreements were promoted. The United States had to develop the power politics abilities of its friends and allies at China’s periphery. In addition, the US negotiated a Transpacific Partnership agreement (TPP) [3] “to consistently block China’s access to high technology (Blackwill/ Tellis 2015). Every “internationalization of Chinese interests in the world must be immediately countered with concrete measures.” That was the conclusion of a special 2015 report of the Council on Foreign Relations, the most important US think tank (ibid).

In China, the whole strategic “turn to Asia” was understood as an attempt at China’s containment and encirclement. On the signing of the TPP agreement, Obama said in 2016: “TPP allows America – and not countries like China – to write the rules of the road in the 21st century.”

Chinese stubbornness

The “up-and-coming against the dominant power” and the derived policy of China’s containment are marked by the disappointment that this country persists on its own path of development. Even in the 1990s, the prevailing opinion was marked by the idea that China’s embedding in a liberal world order would inevitably lead the land toward market capitalism and middle-class parliamentarianism. Economic reforms will make China more and more like the US and receptive for US positions of global governance and the geopolitical status quo. However, China is far more resistant than many believed or hoped.

In the economy, China perseveres in a centralized political control and a mixed economic system. The commanding heights of the economy like the banking- and financial system or the energy- and infrastructure realm are led by the state enterprises even if the market mechanisms were continuously built in the course of reform policy. China’s government has no intention of changing anything in this principle.

Approximately 600 million Chinese gained relative prosperity in the last 40 years. Contrary to current opinions in the West, these new middle classes form the legitimating backbone of China’s KP and strengthen their claim of leadership. The assumption that the new conceptual worlds, ambitions and hopes of the middle-class would inevitably de-legitimate the Chinese system was a western extension of its own agenda, priorities and problem analyses in a Chinese reality marked by very different hopes, expectations, and problems.

Finally, China’s reform policy and economic ascent of the last decades are marked by a pragmatic-realistic self-embedding in the international system of political and economic relations. China’s “network strategy of embedded rise” (cf. Pang 2017) adjusts pro-actively to globalization and tries to gain the greatest possible advantage for its own development. China’s leadership has demonstrated its readiness to accept the current world economic order. Still, this pragmatic acceptance does not mean it is convinced by this order. Although China’s position in the global economic system increasingly moves to the position of developed industrial nations, it declares unperturbed its foreign policy is in alliance with other so-called developing countries. In the global arena, China keeps a cautious distance to the liberal world order led by the US and emphasizes that countries of the global South will play an ever-more important role and therefore the present order must be changed (ibid).

Given the success of China’s model, the Chinese stubbornness actually represents a serious challenge for the current liberal trade regime and the global governance norms preferred by the West. China (and others) will create better conditions and the worries in the US will increase that the institutions initiated by China could compete or even replace the western institutions. At the same time, the Chinese and German governments present themselves as guardians of free world trade against protectionist dangers as on the occasion of the G-20 meeting in Hamburg in July 2017.

Stubbornness forms an ideal breeding ground for Trump’s right-wing populist China discourse. First, a clear opponent can be identified: the other, the unknown who is described as a constant threat. Second, China’s ascent is offered as a reason for the social and economic decline of the US. In Trump’s discourse, Chinese stubbornness is exploited as not playing according to the rules. Third, China’s rise on the global plane stands symbolically for a much far-reaching socio-economic change dynamic that can be opposed completely ahistorically by a romanticized and idealized world of the old “US reality.”

The dilemma of Trump’s China discourse is that translating moods, resentiments, and actionist symbolic policy into a coherent policy remains unclear. The US can offer little resistance to China’s further economic rise in the Asian Pacific region. A trade war with China would hurt the US as much as its rivals. After Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP agreement originally intended to keep China in check, Peking is anxious to get in and fill the arising gaps. It sends ideas all over the world and no longer only goods and capital. In Africa and South America, there are many admirers of the Chinese development path of state control in the market economy. Peking will not be able to really keep up militarily and politically with the US for a long time. The fact that China built an overseas military base for the first time in July 2017 in Dschibuti on the African continent where China is greatly engaged changes nothing because its economic upswing would have been impossible without the resource imports from African countries.

Hegemony claim

The US represents a global hegemonial power and exercised this hegemony in the Asian Pacific area. Every super-power – including China – seeks a hegemonial position. However, the question whether an exclusive hegemony claim is sensible and brings more severity for a state or not is always raised in international relations. Enormous expenditures and considerable resources are needed to prevail against a dominant hegemonial power. Moreover, such replacement attempts are mostly condemned to fail. The US was successful because it inherited its predominance from a weak democratic power with which it has a certain political – cultural affinity – Britain – and secondly could develop its hegemony claim in the long-term in a peaceful environment without any threat in the immediate environment. The agreement of subordinate states was rewarded with protection, economic aid, access to markets etc. The US model was economically successful and very attractive.

China is also an attractive model for many states of the global South, at least in part. Nevertheless, the situation for China is basically different. Establishing a Chinese hegemony in Asia would be a very complex and challenging project producing addition al tension and would not bring China more security – with Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam in the immediate neighborhood and with actors like the US, Russia, and India active in the region. Therefore, China has no ambition to dominate the region, at least for the foreseeable future.

Hegemony in the international context is based on a transnational historical block whose power- and rule-structures are combined on the basis of relatively constant productive and political organizations of several national societies. These structures encourage more than only states like transnational corporations and capital elites. State resources – above all military security, regulation mechanisms, legal systems, and institutions – hold the block together. These resources were provided and controlled by the US in the last decades, even if the strength of the super-power of the 20th century has long been eroding.

The fact that Donald Trump could win the presidency can be explained with a hegemony crisis resulting from the erosion of the capitalist class. Satisfying its needs is stylized as an essential prerequisite for the well-being of the whole country. The claim that the profits of the capital class are the well-being of all classes seems more than dubious after 2008. In the US, this hegemony crisis implies the political vehicles – the Democratic and Republican parties – are dissolving. In this context, the population may rally around a charismatic leader. However, the articulation of a coherent project is almost impossible.

The central question is how the hegemony crisis in the global center will affect relations to China, the Asian Pacific region and the global periphery. US dominance is founded on the constitutive interlocking of power, ideology, and institutions. Through Trump’s “neo-isolationism,” the US will probably withdraw more and more from international institutions, agreements, and obligations. This means the institutional mechanisms of this special structure of international hegemony will be weakened. Whether these mechanisms will really dissolve remains to be seen. The question is which international institutions, state forms and social forces could replace them. China will not fill these gaps. Even if alternative international institutions have been built for some years and changed existing institutions, China lacks the global civil society linkage to lead an international historical block that could bring about a transformation of the present structure.

Global hegemony assumes leading politicians of a super-power present themselves as guarantors of the existing world order. The US claim to leadership in the last seven decades was based on their pretending to be worldwide guarantors of democracy, human rights, and the freedom of movement of capital and persons. The United States offered the world of universalistic ideology in which different interests could be harmonistically reunited. Concrete US interests were often veiled with this rhetoric. Hegemony is necessarily based on forms of balance, offer real development possibilities and mediate the feeling that the existing order is in the best interests of everyone.

Trump’s “America-first policy” that only emphasizes its own interests and absolute superiority throws general norms and principles over board and only sees US foreign relations from case to case in an actionist way destroys this ideological basis of western hegemony. This will undoubtedly get the Asian Pacific region moving and open some areas to Chinese leadership. Still, China will not be able to fill the ideological vacuum since it has no universalistic ideology to offer. Rather, the Chinese government stressed again and again in the last years its development model is uniquely tailored to the Chinese situation, history, and culture and cannot be exported to other world regions.

If Trump’s presidency rings in the “end of the West,” this is not yet the beginning of a “Chinese century.”


[1] Die “Ein-China-Politik” ist die staatspolitische Vorgabe der Volksrepublik, dass Taiwan kein eigenständiger Staat ist, sondern zu China gehört. Folglich will sie keine diplomatischen Beziehungen zu Staaten, die Taiwan anerkennen.
[2] Mit diesem Begriff wird Trump ein diplomatischer Nullsummenspiel-Ansatz unterstellt, den Trump aus seiner Tätigkeit als Kapitalunternehmer entlehnt und in die Sprache der good oder bad deals gekleidet habe. In diesem Verständnis von internationaler Politik seien die Gewinne des einen die Verluste des anderen (vgl. Kahl/Brands 2017).
[3] Anfang 2016 wurde das Handelsabkommen ‚Trans-Pacific Partnership’ (TPP) zwischen Australien, Brunei, Chile, Japan, Kanada, Malaysia, Mexiko, Neuseeland, Peru, Singapur, Vietnam und den USA unterzeichnet. Es galt als Kernstück Präsident Obamas außenpolitische Neuausrichtung nach Asien-Pazifik-Raum und sollte über den Abbau von Handelshemmnissen die Staaten enger aneinander binden und gleichzeitig Chinas wachsenden Einfluss in der Region zurückdrängen. Am 21. November 2016 gab Präsident Trump jedoch bekannt, dass er TPP kündigen werde.
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