Jenny Clegg on the complex and evolving US-China relationship

On the proposal of the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (IDCPC), Friends of Socialist China (FoSC) and the IDCPC jointly organised two online seminars, with participation by invitation, on the theme of, ‘The 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China and its World Significance’, on December 10th and 17th.

A total of 36 supporters and friends of FoSC from England, Scotland, Wales and the north of Ireland, from various nationalities and walks of life, and from a broad range of progressive organisations and areas of struggle, participated, the majority of them in both events.

The first seminar focused on expert presentations, with the speakers being:

  • Liu Genfa, Deputy Director, Department of International Exchange, Training and Development of the China Executive Leadership Academy, Pudong;
  • Qu Bo, Associate Professor and Director, Institute of International Relations, China Foreign Affairs University;
  • Dr Hugh Goodacre, Managing Director of the Institute for Independence Studies and Lecturer in the History of Economic Thought at University College London(UCL);
  • Dr Jenny Clegg, China specialist and former Senior Lecturer in Asia Pacific Studies at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN).

The second seminar concentrated more on an exchange of views and experiences, with younger comrades taking the lead. The speakers were:

  • Ms Wang Yingchun, Deputy Director General of Bureau VII of the IDCPC;
  • Ms Li Na, Communist Youth League Branch Secretary of Bureau VII of the IDCPC;
  • Eben Williams, Member of the International Committee and Chair of the Glasgow branch of the Young Communist League;
  • Fiona Sim, Organiser with Goldsmiths Anti-Imperialist Society

We plan to publish those of the papers for which we have the text on our website in the coming period and hope to organise more such joint activities with our comrades in the IDCPC in the new year.

Below is the speech given by Jenny Clegg at the session on December 10th. Jenny’s presentation explores in some detail the complex and evolving relationship between the US and China, as well as providing an overview of (and raising some questions for discussion in relation to) China’s socialist modernisation.

My contribution comes in two parts – firstly I focus on the US-China relationship with a view to making some assessment, at the current international conjuncture, of the recent Xi-Biden meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Bali summit.  Secondly I raise some issues about China’s last stages of socialist modernisation.

The US-China relationship: the background

The US China relationship has become the dominant influence on the overall dynamics of international relations.

China’s rise counters US hegemonism; it challenges the system of imperialist rule-making; at the same time China’s socialist orientation shows there is an alternative to capitalism.

These three intertwined contradictions are fundamentally antagonistic but as Mao suggested antagonistic contradictions can also be handled in a non antagonistic way – of course depending on the circumstances. Today it is amidst the increasingly complex context of polycrises – of climate change, the pandemic, debt and economic recession, and now the Ukraine war – that we see the US and China engaged in a sharpening trial of strength. 

The fundamental antagonism of the US-China relationship was laid bare in 1950 when at the outset of the Korean War, the US sent the 7th fleet up the Taiwan Straits bringing Taiwan under US protection.  As the dividing lines of the Cold War in East Asia were being drawn, when the PLA entered the war, China became labelled the ‘aggressor’, threatened on several occasions with a US nuclear strike. 

The wars in Korea and then Vietnam were fought on China’s borders but then as the US sought a way out from Vietnam, Kissinger’s visit was to lead to negotiations which eventually saw the restoration of US-China relations in 1979.  So opened a new phase of non-antagonism which made radical change possible in China with Deng’s adoption of ‘reform and opening up’.  In 1982, Reagan followed through with an agreement to gradually reduce arms sales to Taiwan.

However the antagonism in the relationship was never far away for example when the US imposed sanctions following the Tiananmen events of 1989. 

The Cold War division of East Asia did not end with the collapse of the Soviet Union, although the situation eased to a degree.  However, by tying the yearly extension of Most Favoured Nation status – the status of normal trading relations – to human rights issues, the US continued to exert leverage within the relationship.  China worked hard to join the WTO, prepared to make considerable sacrifices to stabilise trade with the US. 

Yet even with this renewed non-antagonism, antagonism was still in evidence as when immediately after 9/11, in its 2001 Nuclear Posture Review, the US placed China on a nuclear hit-list along with Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Libya.

Still the open door policy worked well for China, contributing to a multipolar pattern taking shape among the major powers.  Opposition to the US illegal invasion of Iraq produced a multipolarising reaction from both within the imperialist camp and the Global South.  And following the 2008 financial crisis, the formation of the G20 augured a new step forward in greater global equity.

Between Obama’s Asia pivot and Xi Jinping’s launch of the BR1 in 2013 building on the multipolar momentum, US-China relations were zigzagging around.  Then Trump launched into a trade war with bans on ZTE and Huawei.  His presidency, with its huge expenditure of defence, built up the US military-industrial complex now ever more closely aligned with the media industries.

Pompeo’s speech at the Nixon Library in the midst of COVID finally ended the engagement policy, declaring that ‘securing our freedoms from the Chinese Communist Party is the mission of our time’.

Biden and China

Trump had succeeded in shifting US foreign policy from the so-called ‘war on terror’ to focus on ‘great power competition’ with Russia and China; it was then up to Biden to similarly shift the focus of the US allies.

To coincide with Biden’s inauguration, the Atlantic Council published an anonymous work entitled The Longer Telegram recalling George Kennan’s Long Telegram of 1946 which laid out the Cold War strategy against the Soviet Union. 

The new document, recognising that the US could not restrict the rise of China on its own, called for a new military and economic bloc of democracies to show China that ‘the direction of the world was stacked against it’ and that ‘its global ambitions would never be realised’. 

Predicting China would attack on Taiwan within the next 10 years, it called for the US to provide arms and come to the island’s defence.

And seeing that it was not now possible to overthrow the CPC, it aimed at replacing Xi with a more pro-market figure more prepared to accept US global leadership.  This could be done by fomenting factionalism and by forcing Xi to overplay his hand and take unnecessary risks. 

The G7 summit in Cornwall in June 2021 – to which Japan, South Korea and Australia were invited – was used to stage the new D10 alliance of democracies.  With this in place, the US took NATO unilaterally out of Afghanistan – a mark of US decline but also of the US finally repositioning from the so-called ‘war on terror’ to ‘great power competition’.  Then came just one month later the inauguration of AUKUS – the new ‘NATO of Asia’.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was to provide the pretext for a renewal of the original NATO mission: to keep Russia out, Germany down and the US in.  Only this time, with NATO lining itself up as the armed wing of the new democratic alliance, its mission was extended to China – now identified in NATO’s new Strategic Concept as a challenge to its members’ interests, security and values.

The outcry of ‘democracy against autocracy’ went into full throat insisting that Russia’s attack was a prelude for China’s armed takeover of Taiwan.

Then when Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan drew a show of force from China, the extreme China hawks in the West once again raised the cry of ‘China the aggressor’.  The contradiction between the US and China was on a knife edge.

In the meantime, as European powers along with Japan, South Korea and Australia embraced the militarist agenda, the Global South was generally reluctant to follow the US-NATO lead and uncomfortable, if not decidedly unsettled, by the sanctioning of Russia.  The alliance of democracies was unable to win the convincing support of the UN – and the US effort to reassert its hegemony by dividing the multipolar trend in a New Cold war was evidently meeting a limit.

In some ways the 20th Party Congress brought things to a head: this met from Oct 16th in the face of further intensifying US pressure: the Chip ban was imposed on Oct 7th; and the delayed US National Security Strategy finally published just days later on Oct 12th – this identified China as the only competitor with ‘both the intent and capacity to reshape the international order’.

However with the show of unity and confidence at the Congress along with Xi’s reassertion of the goal of peaceful reunification with Taiwan, the strategy of the Longer Telegram was proving not such a winner.

The unwillingness of many in the Global South to take sides has now been joined by discontent on the streets in Europe – it seemed that it was the warmongers in the West who were overplaying their hand.

The Xi-Biden meeting on the sidelines of the G20 seemed to ease tensions a bit: Biden’s remark after the meeting that he did not think President Xi was planning an ‘imminent attack on Taiwan’ held the worst of the antagonism at bay.  The door to peace negotiations with Russia opened a crack with some cooling in the hawkish rhetoric of ‘no compromise with Russia because China was watching’.

However it will take far more than this is to defeat the US neocons and hawks, and US pressure on China is unrelenting.

The 20th CPC Congress and China’s Socialist Modernisation

Xi Jinping’s report to 20th Party Congress unveiled a new outline for China’s socialist modernisation. Its path is to differ from that of the West in fundamental respects: where the latter produced social polarisation, China aims for common prosperity; instead of industrialisation destroyed the environmental, China seeks a green industrial transformation, and rather than the pursuit of hegemony, – which was based on war, plunder and colonialism -China aims for peaceful development based on negotiation with others.  This is about a multipolarisation which creates a new kind of international order – which is where the GDI and GSI fit in. 

This is also a path of mental transitioning – Deng’s call to learn from the West is no longer adequate: instead Xi talks of developing a new intellectual grounding in the synthesis of Marxism with the best of China’s traditions: the importance of good relationships from Confucianism and the harmony with nature from Daoism as well as the traditional scientific approach of learning by doing, through trial and error.

The next steps are to consolidate a contingent of indigenous scientists, technicians and skilled workers to lead in the new technologies driving the industrialisation of the future.

At the same time, the aim is to increase disposable incomes –  I believe the goal is to double the size of the middle income group to 800 million by 2035. This is to come through upskilling the workforce – creating better paid jobs, with pay rising with increased productivity as well as measures to reduce the rural-urban gap.

China’s ambitions are huge and much depends on the success in the next few years in these steps. 

The dual circulation approach also aims over the longer term to transform the interaction between the domestic and international markets from a vicious circle at the diktat of dollar fluctuations to a virtuous circle of mutual benefit.

Mao and Deng had in their different ways a profoundly transformative impact on the rest of the world. What this next phase of socialist modernisation will mean for the global future is hard to imagine.

The state’s role is crucial in guiding and engineering the kind of changes in China’s economic and social structure necessary for modernisation. 

Learning about China’s modernisation has caused me to reflect on the last stages of modernisation in Britain and the state-society interactions of the first half of the 20th century.

Cecil Rhodes famously stated: Imperialism is a bread and butter issue – if you want to avoid civil war you have to follow Imperialism.

The British state transformed into an instrument of finance and monopoly capitalism amidst deepening class contradictions as wealth disparities widened.   Massive investment and technological change opened up new branches of industry, multinational companies grew, and society became more diversified with the emergence of a middle class whilst the workforce segmented into white and blue collar – the skilled, semi skilled and unskilled.

New policies and institutions evolved integrating sections of the working class into the imperialist project and consolidating the privileges and influence of the middle classes  – the creation of the welfare state, the exponential growth of the mass media and the development of public services – health and education. 

From the bottom up there were also the trade unions, the cooperative movement, municipalisation bringing local services – libraries, leisure facilities, utilities – under local public ownership – all these served as spaces where ideas of social democracy and socialism intermingled.  Workingmen’s clubs were another space.

My question then in relation to China’s modernisation – and I think this will be a key point of interest for socialists in the West – is what kind of new institutions are taking shape to foster social integration in the direction of socialism.  Are the middle classes already solidifying as a privileged strata? And what about the role of the mass media?  How can it bridge the social and communications gaps? Can it play the role of a critical friend as the state drives modernisation?

One thought on “Jenny Clegg on the complex and evolving US-China relationship”

  1. I am from Vancouver, Canada and i wanted to say that today most people in the world live in a Class Society which is part of capitalism. Capitalism wouldn’t survive without Class Society. Mass media is controlled by the Capitalist Class for its benefit.
    During the process of Socialism the majority of the people or the Working Class gradually takes control of organizing Society for the majority of people not the minority. That is when mass media will benefit the majority of people. China is going in that direction.

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