Richard and Pat Nixon walk the wall

Rapprochement in reverse

There is more to US-China tensions than Trump’s xenophobia, argues Paul Demarty

It is clear that Sino-American relations are reaching, or are already in, a historic crisis, with trans-Pacific amity at its lowest ebb in at least half a century.

The golden jubilee of Richard Nixon’s visit to China in two years’ time is much in people’s minds just at the moment, but in a rather ironic way. The tit-for-tat between the two powers escalates; the western press sheds floods of crocodile tears over the Chinese clampdown on anti-Beijing protests in Hong Kong, Britain is strong-armed into cutting the Chinese tech giant, Huawei, out of its 5G network rollout, and both sides close each other’s consulates on anti-espionage grounds.

Mike Pompeo’s speech at the Richard Nixon presidential library in California brought together the American angle on all this. Nixon’s goal with his turn to China, according to Pompeo, was to set the world’s most populous country on the road to ‘freedom’; but the reality of subsequent history has been the emergence of China as an independent world power that uses its economic strength to reinforce the tyranny of the Chinese Communist Party, and vice versa. So the Nixonian strategy is a failure. Where Ronald Reagan’s attitude to the USSR in negotiations was, apparently, ‘trust, but verify’ (assume good faith, but double-check just in case), the appropriate attitude to China today is ‘distrust, but verify’. A country that steals intellectual property, exploits favourable trade arrangements and insists on single-party rule at any cost cannot be trusted.

Much of Pompeo’s spiel comes from his boss, of course. Sinophobic ravings are a core part of the Donald Trump cabaret act, and have been since his earliest campaign statements back in 2015. Trump’s primary line of attack is, of course, that China is taking advantage of ‘unfair’ international institutions to exploit the United States, with the result that American workers are tossed on the scrap-heap by the offshoring of production. Trump promised these workers that he would ‘make America great again’, by which he meant that the USA would not be taken advantage of on his watch - either by the Chinese flooding the market with artificially cheap goods, or Mexico ‘sending their rapists’.

As always with Trump, however, his ‘unacceptable’ ravings are not so far out of the political mainstream as you might think from the outrage coming from his liberal foes. So far as the supposedly perfidious Mexico goes, the Obama administration was content to ramp up deportations extensively as part of hostage negotiations to get Congress to agree a bipartisan immigration bill (which, of course, failed). He merely had the good manners not to make racist statements while doing so, which was good enough for your average MSNBC anchor.

So it seems with China - indeed, the pattern is very closely followed. Trump gets criticism for calling Covid-19 “the Chinese virus” and “kung flu” (quite apart from disastrously mismanaging it). He is accused by liberal media and celebrities of generating hate crimes against Asian-Americans. But at the same time outrage has followed every twist in the Hong Kong saga, for example. It was notable this side of the pond that liberal media outlets sided with rightwing Tory rebels to raise the alarm about Huawei.

It may be surmised, then, that there is a continuum between the establishment mainstream and the Trumpite ultra-reactionaries on the China issue; but at the same time there are contradictions (see the various technocratic objections to Trump’s tariffs, for example). To get to the bottom of this, we must go where Trump dares not tread, but sends Pompeo instead - into history.

Nixon in China

‘It took a Nixon to go to China’ goes the conventional wisdom of American politics - meaning that only someone on the anti-communist right could have pulled it off without seeming like a crypto-red themselves. There is another sense in which this is true. The China turn is one of the most audaciously cynical pieces of Realpolitik in modern history. It took, precisely, a cynic, a power-monger, to do it. It was the sort of diplomatic masterstroke you could expect from a man who raided psychiatrists’ offices and ultimately resigned in infamy for dirty tricks on the campaign trail.

In 1969, Nixon came to office with a lot of problems before him. His reputation as, in Pompeo’s words, a “fierce cold warrior” jibed uneasily with the ‘hot’ war he inherited with the National Liberation Front in Vietnam. He would have known as well as anyone else that Vietnam was a quagmire, and that - with discreet support from both the Soviets and the Chinese, then competing for leadership of ‘official communism’ worldwide - Ho Chi Minh and his comrades could more or less fight forever, while, sooner or later, the Americans would have to call it a day.

Nixon and his most famous advisor, the formidably intelligent and equally ruthless Henry Kissinger, tried a number of stratagems to break the deadlock, including reprehensible crimes like the carpet-bombing of Cambodia. Meeting the Maoists was a strategic gamble to shift the balance of power in the east Asian theatre; Kissinger went first, in 1971, and then Nixon the following year. But it was too little, too late, so far as Vietnam was concerned.

While the meeting of Tricky Dickie and the Great Helmsman provided one of the great ‘What the hell?’ photo opportunities, it was after Mao’s death that the initiative really began to bear fruit. As Deng Xiaoping manoeuvred himself into effective control of the Chinese Communist Party, the country’s foreign policy began to change dramatically. A theory was adopted to the effect that Soviet ‘imperialism’ was a bigger threat than the US variety (which was, after all, a paper tiger … ). In revolutionary situations from Portugal to Angola, Maoist factions started to act as provocateurs that attempted to shrink the Soviet sphere of influence, to the benefit of the USA.

In return, the Americans assisted the integration of China into the global economy. Industrialisation gathered pace. If the phrase was not already taken by a disastrous policy of Mao’s, Deng may well have boasted of a “great leap forward”; but it was not forward towards communism - merely to more ‘development’. The result the regime called “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, but was a peculiar hybrid of capitalism and Stalinist command-economics. Foreign investment soared, and cheap Chinese consumer goods - branded and licensed in many cases by western companies, or part of larger American-centred supply chains - plugged the standard-of-living gap in western societies created by real wage stagnation and rising unemployment over decades.

When western, and especially American, authorities fret about the strategic threat posed by China, it is something like this they have in mind: the way it has become an industrial powerhouse with eager sponsorship from its international partners, including the USA, and worries that it may ‘develop’ its way out of this situation of dependence altogether - or may have done so already. China’s ability to conduct its own global strategy, notably in Africa, has raised the alarm, along with its impressive economic growth and ability to muster state and private resources to back up that strategy.

Nowhere is this clearer than in computing and semiconductors. The 5G controversy in Britain was interesting, partly because it shows how tight a rein the USA keeps on the other five eyes, but also because it exposed plainly that four decades of aggressive financialisation of the US economy have left it unable to produce communications equipment quite as important to the wars and spy capers of tomorrow as oil. As one of many countries to which the business end of computer manufacture is outsourced, China has practical access to the most sophisticated chip designs available. Unlike most other ‘well-behaved’ outsourcing centres, it is notoriously light-fingered with those designs. Wholly capitalist when it comes to enriching themselves at the ultimate expense of superexploited workers in dangerous factories, the party elites are ‘principled communists’ when it comes to American intellectual property. On a long enough timescale, we would expect dependence on foreign designs to disappear entirely, as local expertise grows and China’s own breakthroughs accumulate.

Yet it should be pointed out that dependence on the States - in this area and in most others - has not been overthrown, nor is Pompeo’s panic about the prospects of the free world really plausible. China remains subordinated to the dollar. It is enormously dependent on exports, and especially to the United States and many of its allies. Deng famously cautioned against “tweaking the tiger’s tail” (paper or otherwise); but, even if Xi Jinping were given to such timidity, it would hardly do any good with a Sinophobic gasbag in the White House and every sign that he is a straw in the US strategic wind, on this front if no others.

More generally, global capitalism has a worrying habit of veering sharply into negative sum competition between states and, if ‘America first’ is the watchword in the US, then ‘China second’ is an unwise maxim to pursue in the People’s Republic; and so, mutatis mutandis, in Modi’s India, Abe’s Japan, Johnson’s Britain … In the earlier days of Trump’s presidency, when he first levied tariffs on China, the response from Beijing was almost patronising. We were treated to the bizarre sight of ‘communist’ ministers lecturing a US president on the mutually enriching benefits of free trade between nations. That attitude has chilled considerably, and the evidence of Hong Kong, the South China Sea and all the rest is that - however hopeless attempting to pull the tiger’s tail is in reality - Xi’s administration is now out of options.

It would seem, then, that China is in something like the position of Germany at the close of the 19th century. In some respects - especially industrially - highly competitive with a declining global hegemon, it is nonetheless militarily weak compared to it (the gap is far bigger in the Chinese case), and unable in practice to build an imperial power base in the world at large that could allow it, really, to rebut forcibly the hegemon’s attempts to see off its rivals. A test of strength like World War I - only far more apocalyptic - cannot be ruled out.

Where the comparison falls down is the lack of a contemporary equivalent of the pre-World War I United States - a real hegemon in waiting, capable of picking up the pieces when the leading power finally bankrupts itself. We therefore expect that the final reckoning of the ‘American century’ is a while off yet; its military power is so overwhelming that its closest economic-military rival (China) - never mind military-strategic pipsqueaks like the European Union - is dependent on its good graces. But that is not to say that the US can forego pressing its advantage.

Whether Trump gets himself four more glorious years or Joe Biden gets a long snooze in the Oval Office, Pompeo is right - the ‘Nixon in China era’ is over.