In 2016, Donald Trump won the US presidency with a vow to stop China from ‘raping’ the US economy. During the four years since, the US has adopted an increasingly confrontational stance towards China. In January 2018, Trump launched a trade war with China. In 2019, it imposed a ban on Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei. And following the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, Trump has consistently attempted to distract from his administration’s failures to contain the virus with anti-Chinese racism.
Meanwhile, the US is ‘encircling China with military bases’. Since former US president Barrack Obama announced America’s ‘pivot to Asia’ in 2011, the US seems to have shifted its military priorities from the Middle East to China.
The US has, in other words, engaged China in military, economic, and diplomatic competition – recalling the former Cold War with the Soviet Union. On 28 September, The Canary spoke with Vijay Prashad about the new Cold War with China. Prashad is a historian, prolific journalist, and public speaker. He is also the director of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research, a movement-driven institution which “works towards building a world of peace and justice”.
On 23 July, speaking at the Nixon library, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo called on the UN, NATO, the G7, and the G20 to confront China “in combined economic, diplomatic, and military” terms. Was this the formal announcement of the new Cold War with China?
Let’s give some context to Mike Pompeo’s remarks. Pompeo used to be the head of the CIA. He was also a far-right congressman who’s now attempting metamorphosis into a statesman. He had a politics that was very out there – out of the mainstream.
Pompeo went to the Nixon library in the presence of some of the descendants of Richard Nixon, president of the US who was impeached and who resigned from office. The reason he went to the Nixon library was to honour Nixon, but he ended up doing something curious. One of Nixon’s important achievements as far as US power is concerned was a rapprochement with China between 1971 and 1972.
Henry Kissinger, who was Nixon’s secretary of state, very cleverly understood that in the 1970s one of the things the US could do was to break the alliance between the Soviet Union and China. This had not only big geopolitical ramifications. It also had to do with the US war on Vietnam.
The USSR was sending aid to the Vietnamese through China and if the US could block the Chinese road, it would be hard to get Soviet aid to Vietnam. That was the immediate purpose of Kissinger’s secret negotiations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and in 1972 Nixon goes to China and rapprochement begins.
This rapprochement lasted from 1972 until about 2017/2018 when Donald Trump is in office. Pompeo goes to the Nixon library in front of Nixon’s family and announces that Nixon and Kissinger’s policy vis-à-vis China was a huge mistake, and that that policy is over. No more rapprochement with China. That is incredible – that’s why I said let’s give it some context.
Is it the formal announcement of the Cold War? In a way it’s the statement by the very far-right wing of the Republican Party that they’re not even interested in the very far-right wing realpolitik department of the Republican Party. This is the Donald Trump/Pompeo/Mike Pence wing saying that the Kissinger/Nixon wing is no longer far-right enough.
There are two major crises facing humanity right now: in the short term, the coronavirus pandemic; in the longer term, climate breakdown. How are the US and China responding to these dual crises differently?
It’s very clear that after the Chinese government figured out what was going on by late December 2019, it wanted to break the chain of infection and they were extremely aggressive. At the time they were accused of being authoritarian which is now comical given the policies made in other countries.
At the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research, we released a report called Socialism and Coronashock where we showed the difference in response between Vietnam, Laos, China, Cuba, and Venezuela, and then the US, Brazil, and India. The difference is based on four different things: science as opposed to hallucination; a public sector as opposed to privatisation; public action as opposed to the fragmentation of society; and internationalism as opposed to jingoism. So that’s the real stark difference on the coronavirus pandemic.
The second issue is on climate. The West has elected a number of climate change deniers. Donald Trump is in the lead, but [Brazilian president] Jair Bolsonaro is number two; Boris Johnson is as usual incoherent on everything and so on.
They are not serious people on the climate issue – not serious at all. The Chinese government on the other hand has made some enormous announcements on what they are going to do. As people have rightly said, and these are not people who are pro-China in a crude way, if China goes through with around half of what [Chinese president] Xi Jinping announced, China might save the planet.
Let’s see what happens. China is the world’s leading producer of solar power. I would like to see China take leadership on how cobalt is mined in the Congo. It’s one thing to go to renewable energy, but we have to think about what this means when we create batteries – lithium which comes from Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, for example. There needs to be a public discussion about this.
Let’s add a third crisis – the nuclear crisis. Here the US withdrawal from the nuclear treaty is a blow. Battlefield nukes are back on the table, and I don’t think anybody is backing down. People need to call for renewed negotiations. We need to not be asleep at the wheel here.
As we know, the former Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union was not so cold for much of the world outside of North America and Western Europe. You’ve written a lot about hybrid warfare – in what ways do you expect the new Cold War with China to develop?
It’s already taking shape. A flank of this Cold War is the attack on Huawei and ZTE and the pressure on countries around the world to break commercial ties with China. This is a proxy war.
Pressure on the UK for instance – don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t take 5G and so on. This is to the detriment of the UK – if you go to China and experience their 5G technology, it’s like being on another planet. The internet is so bad in parts of the West it could really do with a re-tooling.
So the proxy war is not happening on a battlefield necessarily right now – it’s happening in commercial relations. This is a proxy war that’s going to have blood on the battlefield, but it’s just a different kind of blood. It’s going to have an impact because 5G and beyond has an impact on the internet. The internet is not just where you search for garbage on your browsers – it runs a tonne of basic functions of society including electrical grids, your GPS system, the movement of goods and services, your deliveries of food during a pandemic. If you don’t have the very best technology, things will slow down, and this has an economic impact.
You might see the more conventional kind of war happening – it may already be happening, I don’t know what the role of the CIA has been.
China has extended its influence into large parts of Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere. Does this influence come along with the same kind of exploitation as with the US, France, or Britain? Is China also building a neo-colonial relationship with these regions, or is it built to a greater degree on mutual co-operation and respect?
There’s a couple of things to bear in mind. One, we live in an international capitalism system – there is no international socialism system. There are socialist experiments inside some countries, but there is no socialist system internationally. Different countries are essentially competing to get resources, markets, and so on.
With the US, it’s still the old coup d’état such as in Bolivia – the US embassy putting pressure on governments to get access to markets, what we call imperialism. The Chinese do it a little differently. They have not entered into this game where the embassy is muscling people. The advantage China has is scale, because there are many public sector firms – they have enormous surpluses, and they can turn up and offer a better deal, plus they offer to build a hospital, school, a road, etc, because they have the capacity to do it.
So China is making a better commercial deal for countries – it’s a different form of doing commerce. Is it mutually beneficial? Under a capitalism, it’s probably as good as it’s going to get. These are not socialist international relations – let’s not fool ourselves. At some point in the future we may create a socialist form of international trade, where countries say to other countries: look, you are a developing country, you don’t need to pay market rates for this or that.
Let’s take what the Venezuelan government did with its oil in the Caribbean with Petrocaribe – in Haiti, cut-price oil was delivered to the Haitian people as an act of solidarity. And [former Venezuelan president Hugo] Chávez said to Haiti: when Simón Bolívar needed refuge you took him in, and so Venezuela has a debt to the Haitian people. That’s a socialist form of commerce, and that’s a whole different thing.
I don’t think we’re at that place now, but that’s not to say that this is not possible. Some of the Belt and Road initiative deals look a little bit like that. The government of China has given enormous latitude to some countries. But the deals are nonetheless commercial deals.
Given the constraints of a capitalist system, I don’t see this as neo-colonial.
Some on the left have adopted a ‘neither Washington nor Beijing’ position. Does this demonstrate an adequate understanding of the situation?
We have gone from 1991 until the middle of the 2010s where the US has operated both economically and militarily without check. There is no UN check on US power – look at the Libya war, what check was there? They just went in and smashed that country, and people were cheering. No check on their power at all.
For the left, multipolarity is very important because it gives us some breathing room, some room to move our own agenda. In the context of unipolarity we had no way to move an agenda. So I don’t feel like the international left has to say that we are on this side or that side of a struggle.
We have our own struggle which may interject with the Chinese government or the Russian government. So I don’t think this is a question of two camps and you need to pick. We are in a period of perhaps multipolarity and I, for one, am a complete advocate for multipolarity – so I am willing to stand for multipolarity against unipolarity.
You can’t create a multipolar world in the abstract. There is a concrete manifestation, and currently the concrete manifestation is defending the right of China and Russia to create an independent foreign policy. It also means defending the right of Venezuela and Iran to maintain their integrity against sustained attack. But only China and Russia have the capacity to open a multipolar situation.
Europe [has] completely capitulated to the US on everything – it won’t create a second pole. So that’s where we are as the left. The left is not saying we approve of Russia; we approve of multipolarity. And if this entails defending Russia’s right to an independent foreign policy, then so be it.
Is it possible to find reliable information on China in the mainstream media?
When you live in an archipelago of horrible media outlets where you’ve got the Murdoch stuff in the UK, Australia, the US, a horrendous press on the European continent, Germany now positioning itself as the most liberal country – the press is terrible.
There is really no reliable source of mainstream information – and that’s a serious problem for democracy. Progressive outlets on the web are constantly vilified as being conspiracy theorists, so it’s hard to put credibility forward, which is bad for the free press.
I would say to my colleagues in the right-wing and liberal media, in the interest of free press you should stop vilifying the alternative press. There are many people out there like us who are trying to develop an alternative media that’s widely available to people. And I think it behoves us just to say – look around for the millions of alternative reporters who are struggling to put forward an alternative viewpoint, often with on the ground reporting.
This interview has been edited in part for clarity.
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