Book Review: The US vs China: Asia’s New Cold War?” – Jude Woodward
Ford, G. (2017). “The US vs China: Asia’s New Cold War?” by Jude Woodward, Asian Review of Books, 29 December.
Jude Woodward’s thesis in her latest book is quite simple: Washington is engaged in an orchestrated plot to contain the rise of China economically, militarily and ideologically.
After the US’s victory in the Cold War, it was determined to prevent the emergence of any fresh challenge to America’s continued global pre-eminence or threat to its manifest destiny. As the Pentagon’s “Defence Planning Guidance 1994-1999” put it,
Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union, or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union. This is a dominant consideration … and requires that we endeavour to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power. These regions include Western Europe, East Asia, the territory of the former Soviet Union, and Southwest Asia.
While back in the early 1990s, it had been possible to make a case that the putative challenger to Washington could be any of Tokyo, Brussels or Beijing, after the 2008 global financial crisis, Beijing was the last man standing. This, as Woodward points out, was all the worse because added into the mix with China was—unlike Japan or the EU—the systemic challenge of state capitalism versus private enterprise at its most unforgiving. The vanquishing of the Russian Empire was meant to have driven that ideological threat into extinction. Thus saw the pivot to the Pacific engineered by Obama and Clinton. Economically, there was the drive to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to corral Beijing behind a Washington-Tokyo axis where the trade rules were to be written in the interests of corporate America and where China was to be kept on the far outside looking in.
From the military perspective, the US launched contrived to challenge China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. Beijing claims sovereignty over three island groups the Spratlys, Paracels and Scarborough Shoal which are contested between China and Taiwan, and the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. From the 1980s on China and ASEAN had agreed to shelve the disputes to await the “wisdom of future generations” while in the interim pursuing joint development. This no longer suited Washington’s purpose. First Clinton, as Secretary of State, declared in Hanoi in 2010 that the South China Sea was in the US sphere of “national interest”. Second Washington used Manila as a surrogate to sabotage this compromise and internationalise the dispute. Philippine President Benigno Aquino claimed in the same year that China was behaving like Nazi Germany in 1938 when it seized the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia; three years later, he referred the dispute to the Arbitration Court in The Hague under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Much to Washington’s joy—despite the US being one of only a handful of nations refusing to adhere to UNCLOS itself—the Court ruled in favor of Manila by accepting that the islets in question were “sea features” rather than “land” and therefore part of the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone.
On a second front, North Korea was brought into play to justify increased military budgets in the US, Japan and South Korea and the deployment of Theatre Missile Defence arrays that pose as much a threat to Beijing as Pyongyang, all allowing Prime Minister Abe to be in a position to call the necessary referendum required to abrogate Japan’s “Peace Constitution” and remove all restrictions on military spending and deployment again threatening China.
Despite all this, Woodward calls it for China. Trump has pulled the plug on TPP, and although it will go ahead absent Washington—and New Zealand; it will be a pale shadow of its former incarnation. Manila’s “victory” evinced little, if any, enthusiasm outside Washington for attributing “outlaw” status to Beijing. Even the Philippine’s incoming President Rodrigo Duterte saw more gain from friendly relations with Beijing than continuing confrontation. Japan goes it’s own way—but alone. Tokyo’s recent assertive posture in the region has done more to revive memories of Japanese militarism in the 1930s and ’40s rather than rally Asian allies to its side.
In a “guns or butter” choice, America’s military posturing is trumped by China trade. The US vs China is an extremely useful antidote to the normally schizophrenic portrayal of Beijing as at the same instant being on the verge of collapse and poised to take over the world.
The foundations of US global dominance are being eaten away with the hollowing out of its economy as China’s surges. China won’t replace the US, but will rather put it in its place as a first among equals.
Jude’s only failure is to forget the EU, but she is British. The EU has just initialled the world’s biggest ever Free Trade Agreement between itself and Japan which fails to merit a mention. More importantly, as Woodward hints, Beijing’s “Belt and Road Initiative” intended to integrate the continent through infrastructure threatens—if the EU seizes the opportunity—to kill the Pacific Century in its infancy and replace it with the Eurasian one and in doing so, comprehensively outflanking all Washington’s efforts, explicitly and implicitly, to fence China in.