Over the last several years, countless doyens of the American foreign policy establishment have called on the United States to recognize it’s fighting a “New Cold War” with China. In January 2019, Iraq War cheerleader Robert Kaplan warned that US-China antagonism represented “nothing less than a new cold war” that “will last decades and will only get worse.” Last December, imperial apologist Niall Ferguson likewise predicted an emergent “Cold War II” with Beijing. Writing in the New York Times, Ferguson claimed that “a cluster of … conflicts” ranging from a “technology war” to a potential “currency war” were fast approaching. He welcomed the conflict, insisting that “if Cold War II confines itself to an economic and technological competition between two systems — one democratic, the other not — its benefits could very well outweigh its costs.”
US leaders, for their part, are doing what they can to ensure the China hawks get their wish. Throughout the current pandemic, President Donald Trump has framed the virus in jingoistic terms, drawing on centuries of racist tropes that portray Asian immigrants as bacilli by calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.” Missouri senator Josh Hawley has deployed similarly antagonistic rhetoric. “Beijing,” Hawley has asserted, “wants the world to trust it and grow dependent on it, so that it can control us. But the world won’t easily do that if it knows that Beijing is responsible for this pandemic.”
Anti-Chinese xenophobia is hardly confined to the Right. Last week, Joe Biden’s campaign released an attack ad in which the senescent septuagenarian attempted to out-racist Trump. In the ad, the Biden team accuses the president — over images of marching troops — of “roll[ing] over for the Chinese” because he naively “took [China’s] word” that it could contain the novel coronavirus. Only Biden, the ad proclaims, was willing to force China to allow US health officials into the country.
When leftists criticized the imperialistic ad for its blatant xenophobia, some liberals jumped to Biden’s defense. Matt Stoller insisted that Biden was correct to attack China “because the Chinese government’s goal is to get rid of democracy worldwide.” (Never mind that only one nation — the United States — has a tradition of militarily intervening in other countries to transform them.) Stoller went so far as to argue that “the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] is the modern Nazi party.”
Liberals and conservatives, it seems, can agree on one thing: China is an existential threat to the United States. The Yellow Peril lives on.
Anti-Asian racism has a long history in America. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, passed amid a swirl of Sinophobia, barred Chinese workers from immigrating to the United States. In 1907–8, the so-called “Gentleman’s Agreement” between the United States and Japan similarly restricted Japanese immigration. And throughout the twentieth century, the United States’ wars with various Asian powers — Japan, North Korea, Vietnam — was accompanied by racism (and, in the case of Japanese and Japanese-Americans during World War II, concentration camps) at home. The recent uptick in anti-Chinese sentiment has shades of this sordid history. As the Right and center fulminate against the “Chinese menace,” democratic socialists must stand firmly against this explosion of bigotry and do everything in our power to combat anti-Chinese xenophobia and racism.
In terms of geopolitics, we must also recognize that the anti-Chinese rhetoric of both Trump and Biden plays into the hands of elites who see the potential outbreak of a new Cold War as good business. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, a US foreign policy establishment materially reliant on war has searched for novel ways to justify exorbitant military spending. Though the events of September 11, 2001 enabled the hawkish establishment to use anxieties about terrorism to pad their coffers, today most Americans have concluded they have little to fear from such attacks.
The foreign policy establishment therefore requires a new enemy: how else to persuade Americans to spend public money on useless weapons? China — a nonwhite, Communist-led country home to over 1 billion people — fits the bill perfectly. In the coming years, we’re likely to witness a continued spike in anti-Chinese rhetoric. If we don’t stand against it, the United States risks falling into a new Cold War that will be as expensive, deadly, and, ultimately, pointless as the last one.
This is not to say that the People’s Republic of China is a paragon of virtue to which socialists should look for inspiration. The Chinese Communist Party is a gross violator of civil liberties and human rights. As Human Rights Watch has summarized, within China “human rights defenders continue to endure arbitrary detention, imprisonment, and enforced disappearance” while “the government maintains tight control over the internet, mass media, and academia.” Most glaringly, the Chinese government has viciously oppressed the Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjian, forcing hundreds of thousands of innocents into concentration camps.
Nonetheless, as an astute analyst of geopolitics declared in 1940, “sensible statemen do not hesitate, if need be, to do what they would not have to do in a perfect world; the ship they steer was not built by philosophers.” Today, US policymakers need to work with China to combat challenges that cross borders, especially climate change, global inequality, and, as our recent experience suggests, pandemic response. In this context, the job of democratic socialists is twofold. First, we must build connections with labor and other democratic movements on the ground in China. Second, we must articulate a foreign policy that, on the one hand, encourages the Chinese Communist Party to change its antidemocratic behaviors, and, on the other, provides space to work with the Chinese government to tackle the transnational threats that menace human health and safety worldwide.
These are very difficult tasks that will require ethical trade-offs, careful diplomacy, and shrewd strategic thinking. The only thing that’s certain is that they will never be accomplished if we enter into a ruinous “New Cold War” with China.