At the end of World War 2 the United States was the strongest economy and military force on the planet. It used that position to impose itself upon the world for the next 60 years. Potential threats to that hegemony were crushed, through persuasion, economic blackmail via the dominant position of the US dollar, regime change of recalcitrant governments, and in many cases invasions and occupations. Tens of millions died and social structures were devastated.
The lack of any serious challenger during those decades bred a mentality of exceptionalism: that the ordinary rules of civilised conduct did not apply; that their way was the only acceptable way; and that their hegemonic monopoly would last forever.
Despite the constant propaganda, the Soviet Union was never a serious threat, and China was too preoccupied with internal convulsions to have much influence beyond its own national borders or those countries immediately adjoining.
The past two decades however, have seen significant changes, the pace of which is accelerating. After the Yeltsin era of the 1990s, Russia began a steady rejuvenation off its economy and political status. China began its true Great Leap Forward following the reform and opening up of its economy and society under Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s. The results are unparalleled in modern history. Per capita income in China is 25 times what it was when Deng’s reforms began. Poverty levels, as measured by the World Bank have shrunk from more than 90 percent of the population in 1978 to less than 2 percent today.
China’s GDP growth rate has been sustained at a level about three times the rate of most developed economies, and has done so for several decades. On a parity purchasing power basis, China is now the world’s largest economy, and that superior economic position will continue and grow for the foreseeable future.
Not the least of the reasons for China’s dynamic growth is their investment in education and in particular science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). About one quarter of all STEM workers in the world today are Chinese. The expectation is that by 2025 (a key date in Chinese planning) there will be more Chinese STEM workers than in the whole of the OECD combined.
Although on a vastly smaller scale, Russia has similarly invested heavily in promoting educational excellence in STEM subjects. The contrast with the US could not be greater. Since 2001 the US has spent approximately $6 trillion in foreign wars, while deferring about $4 trillion in necessary infrastructure expenditure.
The military industrial complex has flourished, while the rest of the US has not. According to UN statistics, the US is now 42nd in the world in life expectancy. This is a very sensitive indicator pointing to a range of deficiencies in education, health care, nutritional standards and social infrastructure.
Vast sums are required each year to maintain a network of more than 800 military bases around the world. This empire of bases is needed to maintain control over vassal states and “contain” both Russia and China. Neither of those countries, massive propaganda notwithstanding , has shown the least interest in expanding beyond its existing borders.
Both Russia and China have however, despite military budgets a fraction of US levels, developed a range of high tech weaponry that is significantly superior to that of the US and its allies. Putin’s revelations in his March 2018 speech to the Russian Federal Assembly about Russia’s hypersonic weapons capabilities was a profound shock to the US establishment. After initial denials, they acknowledged the truth of Putin’s claims and immediately sought even greater military funding in an effort to catch up. That expenditure will come at the expense of investment in civilian infrastructure, leading to a further deterioration in the facilities for ordinary people.
There is very good reason to believe that China’s military capabilities, while not up to Russian standards yet, are nonetheless formidable in their own right. The Dong Feng missile series for example, gives China both a defensive and offensive capability that is unmatched by the Americans.
That is the context in which the present situation of sanctions, trade wars and other forms of warfare needs to be assessed.
The Trump administration is in fact waging war on both China and Russia. Because it does not (yet) involve a shooting war that does not make it any less a war. That war takes many forms.
In Russia’s case there are extensive sanctions applied to the Russian government, individuals and companies. It is a measure of American disregard for international law (never strong at the best of times) that these sanctions are illegal. They manifestly serve a series of geopolitical goals. Nord Stream 2 is just one example. Secretary of State Pompeo was recently in Europe, as was Vice President Pence, threatening sanctions on European countries and companies that co-operated in the Nord Stream project. The Americans would rather that European reliance was upon the much more expensive American LNG.
US politicians and media are constantly claiming “Russian interference “ in the internal affairs of the US and other western nations. American pressure over Nord Stream 2, or threatening European nations and organisations for co-operating with Iran over the latter’s compliance with the JCPOA (unlike the Americans who have unilaterally withdrawn from that agreement) is blatant interference in the affairs of sovereign nations. It is an irony totally lost on the Americans and their acolytes.
The “war” against China takes many forms, of which the so-called trade war is only one obvious example. The tariffs imposed or threatened on China’s exports harm not only the Americans, but world trade generally.
Other forms of warfare include cyber warfare, military exercises in proximity to Chinese territory, 400 military bases directed at China as part of the “containment “ strategy, and a constant barrage of propaganda about alleged Chinese spying, intellectual property theft, and ‘debt traps’ for poor nations that accept Chinese development assistance.
That none of these allegations withstand serious scrutiny is not the point. They are part of a determined policy of war to try and isolate China, undermine its development and prevent it from ever challenging America’s hegemony in every continent and region of the world. One needs to look no further than the US intelligence community’s 2019 World Threat Assessment.
That’s assessment concludes that China is using the Belt and Road Initiative to extend China’s global, economic and political reach to “diminish US influence.” To counter that challenge, the US must, according to its National Security Strategy, “prevent enemy success” and “protect our interests.” The officially designated enemies are Russia and China. It is clear that there are no limits on the forms this “protection” will take.
The trade war that the US is currently engaged in against China has in reality little to do with the trade imbalance between the two countries. As Michael Klare points out quoting leaked documents, the objective of the trade war is to sabotage the Made in China 2025 program. The objective of this Chinese program is to develop world-leading excellence in a range of technical fields. The American objective in the current trade talks is to force China to accept a subservient role to American wishes in all fields into the future. It is delusional to think that the Chinese would ever accept such a status, let alone reduce or diminish their own drive for excellence and leadership.
The campaign against Huawei is but one facet of the wider American strategy. Huawei is accused of being an agent of the Chinese government, and its 5G technology, in which it leads the world, is really, the Americans and other allege, a vehicle for China to spy on the world.
Again, the accusers here have had an irony bypass. At least since the Echelon project (which began in the late 1960s) the Americans and their Five Eyes allies (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK) have been intercepting private and government communications around the world. The revelations of Edward Snowden provided further confirmation of wholesale electronic spying by the US National Security Agency.
The Five Eyes partners each monitor a section of the world including from such places as Menwith Hill in Yorkshire (UK), Pine Gap in Australia, Waihopai in New Zealand’s South Island, and Buckley Air Force Base in Colorado (US). Modern technology has simply expanded the scale and the scope of this electronic spying.
Much of that spying is aimed at gaining a commercial advantage for US companies. This is nothing new. The Americans were engaged in industrial espionage against the British in the 19th century at a time when Britain was a leading industrial power. Intellectual property theft is not a recent invention.
China now leads the world in patent applications, with 1.38 million such applications in 2017, compared to just under 607,000 in the US. If any country is more likely to be the victim of intellectual property theft, it is the Chinese. There is already evidence that one of the US reactions to the revelations of Russian missile superiority was to increase their efforts to steal Russian intellectual property in that area.
The reaction of the majority of the world’s countries to this US sourced offensive against Russia and China indicates that it is unlikely to succeed. One reason for the greater willingness of countries to defy American hegemonic demands is the increasing realisation that US bullying is built upon a financial structure that is on the verge of collapse.
According to the Financial Times, the US will need to sell $12 trillion of bonds over the coming decade. Both China and Russia have stopped buying US Treasury bonds, and other major purchasers are reducing both their holdings and their willingness to trade in dollars. The US will either need to find alternative buyers (unlikely) or reduce its expenditure (even more unlikely). The extent to which nations cease to use the dollar as the medium of trade will accelerate the demise of America’s capacity to dominate.
Trump has recently announced a commitment to upgrade military expenditure, already at record levels, and to compete with China in the 5G market. This is pie in the sky thinking. The US does not have the present capacity to compete with the Chinese or the Russians, as the huge gap in hypersonic missile technology makes abundantly clear.
It is this inability to compete that is driving the contemporary warfare of tariff wars, hybrid wars, sanctions, bullying and economic sabotage. At best this warfare will have a delaying effect on the inevitable continuing rise of China, which is after all no more than the restoration of an historical position interrupted by five centuries of European colonial domination. At worst, as seen from US withdrawal from multiple treaty obligations, symptomatic of a wider disregard for the rights and responsibilities of the community of nations, it will lead to actual warfare based on the deluded belief that their hegemony of the post war years can be maintained indefinitely.
James O’Neill, an Australian-based Barrister at Law and geopolitical analyst, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.