Out With the Trade War Against China, and In With the Culture War Against It
It was Obama who first "pivoted to Asia," Biden will at most rebrand the crusade against China
‘Now we can get back to normal.’ That was the sigh of relief, tinged with at least a frisson of Schadenfreude, with which many international-relations commentators greeted the defeat of President Trump. The subsequent arrival of effective Covid-19 vaccines added to their mild delight that an extraordinary final year of a singular four-year US presidency would soon be behind us.
Many think that Western politicians and diplomats can now revert to their postwar multilateralist ways, without having to deal with an unpredictable and erratic American president. No more unilateralist antics. No more disregard and contempt for America’s allies. And no more capricious provocation of China, with the dire potential consequence of a military standoff.
But this expectation of a reassuring return to international norms could actually be much more dangerous to global peace than anything Trump initiated. A resumption of Western complacencies about international affairs would only compound the existing deep-rooted challenges – challenges that have in fact been exacerbated by the response to Covid-19 far more than by Trump.
Within the West, long-stewing fragilities in many of its economies have been brought to the surface by the recessions this year. Meanwhile, the relative resilience of countries in the rising East compared to the old West has revealed more strongly the different economic dynamics around the globe.
As a result, the choice facing the still politically dominant countries of the West is starker than ever. Seek to preserve an outdated geopolitical framework threatened by objective forces of change; or take this momentous year as the opportunity to pivot towards international cooperation and renewal. Unfortunately we still seem to be some way from adopting the second alternative path.
A return to transatlantic harmony?
Most leaders in Europe’s capitals did little to hide their relief at Trump’s impending departure from the White House. The European Commission (EC) is already talking of grabbing a ‘once-in-a-generation’ opportunity to reset its relations with the US and, it says, bury the tensions of the Trump era. Its nostalgia for a reprise of the Obama years – when Joe Biden was vice president – implies a remarkable amnesia about how transatlantic relations had already deteriorated during those eight years.
It is true that Obama wowed an enormous Berlin crowd in 2008, before his actual election, with a promise to end the unilateralism of his predecessor, George W Bush. But tellingly, he said little about how he would reverse the course of the Bush era. As one unnamed German government employee commented at the time, ‘this is an anti-Bush rally’, rather than a statement of Obama’s own plans.
In fact, once elected, Obama mostly continued on the same path as his predecessor. From Libya to Syria to trade matters, his policies further strained transatlantic relations. Although ignored at the time, Obama had even dropped into his Berlin speech a demand for more ‘burden-sharing’ from the German government. This anticipated his later assertion that America’s European allies were required to do more to assist American national interests. President Trump’s subsequent calls to Make America Great Again, and his rejection of the old multilateral order, accorded with Obama’s frustrations that America’s allies had for too long been unwilling ‘to put any skin in the game’.
Belief that a Biden presidency will automatically heal transatlantic relations ignores the substantial areas of disagreement. These include financial contributions to NATO and America’s call for European countries to take more responsibility for ‘policing’ areas close to them. Differences extend also to trade and the role of the World Trade Organisation; the use of state subsidies; the methods for controlling and taxing Big Tech companies from the American west coast; and, more broadly, how to regulate digital firms and activities.
For all the talk of renewing the transatlantic partnership, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is well aware of ongoing differences. She recently warned EU ambassadors that ‘some shifts in priorities and perceptions run much deeper than one politician or administration’ and would not ‘disappear because of one election’. Moreover she gave notice that if the incoming US administration failed to be a genuine partner and agree a consensus solution on new taxation rules for American technology companies by a mid-2021 deadline, then the EU would act unilaterally.
An end to China-bashing?
One area where one might expect more cooperation across the Atlantic in 2021 is over China. Whatever else divides them, surely Europe and the US will be aligned in defence of the Western order against what the EC calls the ‘strategic challenge’ posed by China.
Although Biden probably will not be in a rush to abandon his predecessor’s tariffs on Chinese imports, his administration is likely to strike a change of tone on China. As opposed to Trump’s so-called ‘transactional’ approach to US-China relations, focusing on trade levels and technology, Biden is expected to project US opposition to China’s growing strength much more in the language of ‘Western values’, ‘human rights’ and the defence of ‘liberal democracy’.
Again, though, the overall US direction of travel over China will continue where Trump left off, just as Trump continued where Obama left off. We should recall that it was in 2011, when Obama and Biden occupied their offices in the White House, that America doubled down on the strategy of trying to contain China’s rise by launching its ‘pivot to Asia’. From Obama to Trump and now to Biden, the US’s objective has been to try to curb China’s rise in the world.
In fact, even Biden’s anticipated elevation of a culture war with China, above the old trade wars, does not really change things. The outgoing administration had already been representing its China policy in cultural and moral terms. In July 2020, Trump’s loyal secretary of state Mike Pompeo argued that the West had to up its game against China if the ‘free world’ is to ‘triumph over this new tyranny’. ‘Securing our freedoms from the Chinese Communist Party’, he declared, ‘is the mission of our time’.
This culture-war approach stokes confrontation. It portrays the genuine political challenge of how to incorporate a rising economic power into the geopolitical set-up as a contest over fundamental ideas and values. I’ve explained before that unlike trade wars or technology conflicts, wars over values and cultures are not so amenable to compromise solutions.
The Biden administration seems poised to continue the same dangerous strategy of attempting to perpetuate the old Western-dominated international order pretty much as it is. Pompeo’s call for a ‘new alliance of democracies’ to prevent Beijing from eroding ‘our freedoms’ and subverting ‘the rules-based order’ was the warm-up act for the next US president. And so it has proved. Biden has recently announced that he is to convene a global ‘summit of democracies’ aimed at countering Chinese influence in the world.
This approach should strike a chord with the mostly globalist, rules-fixated leaders in Europe. But although the EU and the US agree, as the EU put it, on ‘the strategic challenge presented by China’s growing international assertiveness’, they ‘do not always agree on the best way to address this’. This highlights the obstacles to collaboration as the two big Western blocs pursue their interests unilaterally, over China as well as other issues.
An end to national tensions?
Alongside all these transatlantic stresses, the main responses to the pandemic have done nothing either to quell differences inside the West’s regions over China. Across most advanced industrial nations, governments are torn between their economic dependence on China and their conservative impulse to use political levers to slow down their countries’ relative decline in the world.
In few nations is this clearer than in Germany, where its carmakers, already struggling with technological challenges, have this year become even more reliant on the booming Chinese market. For many leading German manufacturing companies, China represents over a fifth of their sales, rising to 40 per cent for Volkswagen.
The dilemma that this dependency poses for the German government makes it difficult to agree not only a shared transatlantic perspective towards China, but also a consistent EU approach. Attaining an intra-European consensus is made harder still because some member states have developed stronger direct ties with China.
Take Italy, for example. It has been criticised by the EC for being too closely aligned with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a censure felt more bitterly than ever this year, given China offered more solidarity to Italy when Covid-19 hit than did its European ‘partners’. The ‘17+1’ co-operation group set up by Beijing, with mainly Central and Eastern European countries, compounds the EC’s internal tensions. The group already includes a dozen EU member states – which is approaching half the nations of the EU.
These differences in attitude to China show how tenacious different national interests remain as the world enters 2021. This refutes the claim made earlier in the year by some globalist promoters that the pandemic would confirm the irrelevance of the nation as a political institution and the importance of globalist organisations and structures. Indeed, the opposite happened.
Nation states have been in the frontline of the fight against Covid-19. This fight has helped re-establish the legitimacy of state activism. Meanwhile, international organisations have failed to provide much assistance to people, never mind leadership. Many, such as the World Health Organisation, have not been standing above the national fray. Rather, they have revealed themselves to be battlegrounds for competing nation-state interests.
In fact, the most mature globalist institution in the world, the European Union, seems more dogged than ever by internal discord between its member nations. As 2020 draws to a close, ongoing wrangles over its economic recovery plan, its next seven-year budget, and new ‘rule of law’ conditions illustrate some contentious fault lines.
Another way is possible
This reality of distinct national interests does not, though, have to result in destructive rivalry between nations. Historically there are many instances of effective cooperation and collaboration between diverse countries. Successful examples include: coordinating international air travel, border-tariff reductions, disaster-relief operations, and cross-border sporting or cultural events. The problems in international relations arise only when particular countries, individually or collectively, exert, or seek to exert, political power over others and deny others their sovereign rights.
This year’s global health crisis could have been an occasion for reducing national frictions through closer international collaboration. Unfortunately, that was inhibited by pre-existing tensions between countries and regions. It is telling that the latest assessment on the pandemic from the OECD, the think tank for the advanced industrial countries, highlighted the faltering of international cooperation. Despite this being ‘the first fully global crisis since the Second World War’, the OECD drew attention to the ‘inward-looking actions’ taken by many governments, and the general lack of cooperation, even compared to the 2008/2009 financial crisis.
Within the EU bloc in particular, the memories of shut borders and the refusals of solidarity requests in the early weeks of the pandemic will not fade quickly.
The year did produce positive collaboration between scientists from different countries cooperating across borders to develop vaccines. Unfortunately, this was accompanied by unsavoury instances of vaccine nationalism and other protectionist tactics for procuring personal protective and medical equipment.
An end to the pandemic is now in sight. This makes it even more important not to allow the consolidation and extension of these regressive insular impulses. Instead, we need to promote an enlightened internationalism, comprising national democratic sovereignties, to guide us through the 2020s.
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