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US v China: new Cold War or new Opium War?

Written By: - Date published: 10:27 am, August 25th, 2020 - 23 comments
Categories: australian politics, China, colonialism, Donald Trump, Free Trade, International, Joe Biden, us politics, war - Tags:

The Trump administration has declared war on China, and there is much speculation in the punditry as to whether or not this is a new Cold War similar to that waged post World War 2 against Russia. In my opinion, the 19th century Opium Wars may offer a more appropriate analogy, albeit with a likely different outcome.

Google “cold war China” and you will get close to 300,000,000 results. Their top article a couple of days ago today featured an interview in Asahi Shimbun with John Mearsheimer, Chicago University professor and political scientist. He is described as a “theorist of offensive realism,” and argues thus:

Asked about whether since the Covid-19 outbreak, the countries had begun a ‘real cold war’, Mearsheimer says that the ‘real cold war’ had begun before the coronavirus, and that the pandemic did not “matter much”.

He says that even ideology does not play a big role in the nations’ conflict. The real deal, Mearsheimer says, is the balance of power. “China has become so powerful over the past 20 years. There is a serious chance that (China) could become a regional hegemon in Asia,” he says in the interview, adding that the US does not tolerate peer competitors and the idea that China is going to become a regional hegemon is unacceptable to the nation.

The 20th century Cold War with Russia was framed as an ideological conflict, of capitalism versus communism, and fought on the basis of military competition and spending which the Soviet Union could not ultimately compete. Its collapse saw the looting of the State under President Yeltsin.

Mearsheimer does not believe that the US-China rivalry is principally ideological.

He explains how it was this “clash of interests” generated by the fundamental change taking place in the balance of power, which was driving the competition. “And I would note that you’ll hear a lot of talk about the fact that the United States is a liberal democracy, and that China is a communist state. And, therefore, this is an ideological clash,” he said.

As to where this might lead, Mearsheimer draws parallels with the start of World War 1

According to him, the experts at the time had said that there was a tremendous amount of economic interdependence in Europe, which is why no one would dare start a war. “But nevertheless, we had World War I,” he says, explaining that while nations can have economic cooperation, there was also “security competition.”

He says that the economic cooperation between US and China is slowly beginning to disappear, and there was now economic competition as well as security competition.

He told Asahi Shimbun that US has its “gun sights on Huawei”, and would like to destroy it, as they want to remain on the cutting edge of modern sophisticated technologies.

In my opinion, this is the heart of the matter. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s main crime has been to declare the “Made-in China 2025” strategy. A briefing paper for the US congress offers an. analysis and specifically in relation to Huawei says:

Since May 2019, the Administration has tightened control over dual-use exports to China’s telecom firm Huawei, restricted the use of universal funds to purchase Huawei equipment, and sought to dissuade foreign governments from using Huawei products in their 5G networks.

An article last weekend in the Economist is headlined “America closes the last loophole in its hounding of Huawei.” Trump’s edict in the forced sale of TikTok to an American company, most likely Microsoft, in my opinion is nothing more or less than an act of state piracy.

And this is where the similarity to the Opium Wars comes in. In the early 19th century, Britain’s return on tea sales from India was declining and opium was a more profitable crop. Chinese silks and porcelains were highly desired, but the Chinese wish to be paid for these luxury goods in silver was not. Britain wanted to pay with opium, and when the Imperial legate ordered their stocks in Canton destroyed, superior British gunnery forced the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing which allowed payment in opium, ceded Hong Kong to Britain, and brought misery to millions of Chinese.

The Treaty of Nanjing came two years after the Treaty of Waitangi. Every Chinese knows about the Treaty of Nanjing, just as nearly every Maori and many pakeha now know about the Treaty of Waitangi. They live in current consciousness. But the lesson China learned from the Opium wars is not to be caught again with inferior military technology, and in their region they won’t be.

This creates a very dangerous situation for us as well. Every US  wargame with China leads either to defeat or nuclear war. And the traditional US response to challenge is to double down, so the risks of accidental conflict are very high. The US has pulled out of the Intermediate Forces nuclear agreement, and wishes China to join its renegotiation. China is willing to consider doing this, if the US reduces its nuclear warheads to the same number as the 300 or so the Chinese possess. What US withdrawal does mean however that China may be ringed with short-range nuclear missiles as is Russia. The US Marines have changed their Pacific strategy from seaborne invasion to missile placement.

Back to John Mearsheimer. He does not believe things will change under a Biden administration, and he does not think the Chinese do either.

He says while he was in China for 17 days in October 2019, he talked to many Chinese foreign policy leaders. He points out that almost everyone he talked to believed that it didn’t matter whether Trump won or lost the presidential elections, in terms of US-China relations “The Chinese believe that the Americans have their gun sight on China, and nothing is going to change that. I think they are correct,” he told Asahi Shimbun.

What is likely to change if Biden becomes President is a much greater emphasis on alliance building, as his administration attempts to contrast themselves with Trump’s bullying. That means immense pressure will come on New Zealand from the US and from Australia to join the new Opium wars.

For a small nation like ours dependent on trade and committed to peace, that would be a real disaster.




23 comments on “US v China: new Cold War or new Opium War? ”

  1. PsyclingLeft.Always 1

    Yea, I dont see China as the "Good Guy" here. At all. While Trump is a dangerous, narcissistic buffoon, the Chinese Capitali..Communist state is repressive and absolutely on Amnesty Internationals list.

    • francesca 1.1

      You don't have to see China as the good guy .It's not about good guys and bad guys .It's about survival of the human race, it's about an end to unipolar domination, diplomacy, taking the mote out of your own eye before denouncing others.

      The US is not the indispensable nation, the exceptional nation, whose rights to dominate and gather global wealth to itself supersede all others

  2. Byd0nz 2

    It's simple. The USA, built on the flotsam and jetsam of world people abandoning there own homelands and to survive in this new great promised land found that they needed to arm themselves for protection against the other flotsam and jetsam all trying to become Top Dog. Nothing has changed, the USA insists it is Top Dog, takes no notice of any other Nation who try to explain that there is a need for co-operation and a need for dialogue with others. Hence the UN. We have seen the US view on the UN, your either with us or against us, if you dont agree, we berate you and do our own thing, if you agree then we hold you high. So the US see themselves as Top Dog and nothin is going to change till the US Top Mongrel is dead and buried.

  3. Adrian Thornton 3

    Good piece there, thanks, I think you hit the nail on the hear right here…

    "He told Asahi Shimbun that US has its “gun sights on Huawei”, and would like to destroy it, as they want to remain on the cutting edge of modern sophisticated technologies.

    In my opinion, this is the heart of the matter. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s main crime has been to declare the “Made-in China 2025” strategy"

    As far as Russia goes, that is just the usual US smoke and mirrors "Bad Guy" ploy they have been using forever, why anyone with half a functioning critical brain would buy into such obvious bullshit is beyond me?

  4. Stuart Munro 4

    Whether siding with our traditional allies in your projected 'opium war' is disastrous or even objectionable really depends on the shape the conflict of interests takes.

    It's fair to say that China is less than enthusiastic for direct conflict with significant powers, (probably attributable to outcomes like the battle of the Yalu River,) preferring to maintain a buffer state like North Korea. China has had the worst of major conventional conflicts for centuries. It can invade small neighbours and rattle sabres at the Philippines, but it has some way to go before it can precipitate a major conflict without getting caned. A nuclear conflict is a very different matter, but no country has thus far determined how to conduct a nuclear war advantageously. Let's assume it's off the table, until there is some reason to assume that it is not.

    China's strength lies in its economic efforts. Its penetration of US financial markets and the technology sector is significant. Locally, the growing influence of China has seen it emplace multiple MPs in a parliament not set up to resist that kind of infiltration. It has also become a major owner of NZ agricultural and forestry assets. China is winning on this battleground.

    If your 'new cold war' means providing US basing or listening posts, well, we do that already. If it means limiting local political participation of appendages of the Chinese state, or limiting foreign investment to prioritize NZ interests, New Zealanders won't shed any tears for the loss. It is only if we are called upon to contribute militarily, or join a sanctions regime of dubious morality that the competition threatens us.

    That said, we do better to cultivate relations with other smaller states not wishing to become clients of either wannabe hegemon. We have more in common with them.

  5. PsyclingLeft.Always 5

    Close to NZ….China and PNG. Heavying over gold mines etc. US and China : Go Home

  6. Concepts like "China" and "America" are fantastic marketing schemes that serve the interests of corporate warlords and unelected power brokers.

    Without real democracy or freedom, these modern empires serve no greater purpose than the security and enrichment of a decadent and egotistical elite

  7. Ad 7

    Mike I don't always agree with you, but I agree with you.

    Biden sets out his position on China here with the title "Why America Must Lead Again":


    Biden notes: “The United States does need to get tough with China. If China has its way, it will keep robbing the United States and American companies of their technology and intellectual property. It will also keep using subsidies to give its state-owned enterprises an unfair advantage—and a leg up on dominating the technologies and industries of the future.

    The most effective way to meet that challenge is to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations, even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change, nonproliferation, and global health security.”

    Trump is about as isolationist as Lindbergh was. Biden at least gets the need for friends.

    But I'm not clear if Biden will remove the Trump anti-China tariffs. I think it will rather be mostly a shift in tone.

    China needs to start putting positive signals out if it doesn't want this to get worse.

    For example supporting Taiwan's membership to the WHO along the same lines as WTO or APEC membership.

    Or start to roll back its own retaliatory tariffs – similar to the rollbacks of warheads between the USSR and US during the SALT negotiations.

    The US are currently going to elect Biden – because they have a democratic system that renews their governance. This gives them strong ambit to make policy shifts.

    Xi, on the other hand, is constitutionally ruling China for as long as he feels like it. So there's much narrower and more opaque degree-shifts in policy. So the US has built-in strategic advantage right there.

    Whereas we're a very small boat on a rising sea, with no reason to get involved too much with either of them in this gig.

    • Mike Smith 7.1

      Thanks Ad. I just think we need to be aware that the pressure will come on from the US and Australia to take sides and it will be heavy. It will not be easy to maintain principled independence. I also think the emphasis should be on maintaining peace in our region and our world. See this debate between Prof Hugh White and John Mearsheimer in Australia last year https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oRlt1vbnXhQ. I think White was wrong about the US not being serious and right about us not taking sides.

      • Ad 7.1.1

        As the breakup of most global institutions accelerates next term, the international rules-based system that we've promoted and relied upon (NZ and AU helped build) won't support us staying neutral in all respects for long.

        Maybe the US will want to rejoin CPTPP. We've chosen non-neutrality by being in that trade grouping without the US.

        RCEP is the big one to watch. China is in that as are we. We take a much stronger step away from neutrality if that one comes off.

        The trade blocs are what you have when the WTO really breaks down by the end of this year.

        At that point there's no trade neutrality anywhere.

    • RedLogix 7.2

      Trump or Biden matters relatively little, both merely express tonal shifts in what is a much larger geopolitical drama.

      China is despite it's strong man governance faces many fundamental challenges and is in a relatively weak position. The Chinese are astute students of their own history, they know that the chances of the CCP remaining in power by 2030 are not good and are pressing all the buttons they can think of to avoid this fate.

      The USA has entered a phase where both a social crisis and failure of governance have coincided; so despite their underlying strength and positive prospects, there will be a decade of turbulence as they adapt.

      Both nations face potentially dangerous times; before we even make reference to their rivalry that now tips into outright hostility. A Biden Administration will initially attempt to moderate the language, but the outcome will be the same, that the USA will continue to accelerate it's withdrawal from the global order and China will struggle in the wake of this.

      The whole "Made in China 2025" notion was only ever possible if the USA continued to engage as not only the anchor client, but as the guarantor of global trade security. That's off the table now. For all his vaunted strategic cleverness, Xi Xinping is like the village idiot who has sawn off the branch of the tree he was sitting on.

      In his mind there was the idea that the great new Silk Road would take it's place, that China could build a global trade hegemon to take the place of the US one. Except it was always a delusion; they have neither the geography, the demography nor the security to pull it off now. If the US withdrawal had been more drawn out, over several more decades there was a chance, but both Trump and COVID have put a massive banana peel under that option.

      If we thought 2020 exciting so far; it's only the prelude to a decade the like of which the world has never seen. The good news is that at some point I believe, that through a craven, imminent fear of the consequences, a new order will arise.

      • Ad 7.2.1

        There's got to be more fun things to do than study entropy. And there's mental limits to watching the world I knew die.

        I'm going to recommit to going to the movies instead, so in approximate calendar order:

        First, Tenet, because Christopher Nolan may be the last of the epic Directors we get

        Then the Avatar sequel, because New Zealand somethingthing

        Then WonderWoman because the early '80s were my teenage years

        Then do the Labour victory party. What the hell, a masked ball.

        Then, Black Widow, so I can watch Scarlett age gracefully

        Then, No Time To Die, because the title is about how I feel

        Then, Top Gun just to throw popcorn at Tom

        Then, Dune. Because the Spice.

        Then, take 6 weeks off, Do the Kepler and visit Gog and Magog for the Stewart Island Harlequin Gecko.

        Hopefully Foundation early in 2021.

        • RedLogix

          Currently listening to the full soundtrack of Interstellar. Definition of epic.

          May I also suggest The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Absolutely stood the test of time.

          Incidentally when you are doing the Kepler think of me at some point. It was my idea.

  8. Byd0nz 8

    Policy shift? What, a Democrat led world bully from a Republican led world bully. The only guarantee is some other country somewhere in the world are going to experience the American war machine.

  9. Adrian Thornton 9

    It's interesting how many commenters on this thread who regularly defend the liberal status quo and ideology of NZ Labour and the Dems seem to feel so negative around China when they are just playing the same game under our free market laissez faire rules (that Labour love so much)… if you don't like what is obviously coming down the line for us all then start supporting ideologies that would actually implement real change that would protect our workers and land, because free market Labour NZ are sure as hell not going too it…a socialist NZ!

    Turn Labour Left!

  10. Byd0nz 10

    To Adrians comment: I think they might become more left without the restrictive hand brake. Hopefully Labour will gain big margin, enough they could rule alone, though I think they will bring the Greens on board and with the handbreak off we may see a more Norman Kirk type Government, remembering that Big Norm was more Red than people may have realised. I would be happy as a Cuba of the South Pacific, fuck the Yanks, keep em out.

  11. Ken 11

    Is it wrong of me to hope that USA and Russia (and China) can all take eachother down a peg or two?

    If there's going to be another Opium War, can we at least have some opium?

  12. Gosman 12

    Where's your evidence that every war game involving the USA and China leads to defeat for the US or Nuclear war?

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