Is It a "cold war" or a "Cold War"?
Are we in the middle of a Cold War without anyone telling us? In Chaos under Heaven, Josh Rogin asks: "Is the United States in a cold war with China?" Then responds, "That’s the wrong question, because it doesn’t provide a useful answer. The historical analogy is too imperfect."
In Has China Won?, Kishore Mahbubani avoids the expression "Cold War" in favour of "Sino-American geopolitical contest." Despite denial and avoidance, both books frame the ongoing conflict between China and the USA as a sequel, however imperfectly analogous, to the Cold War between the USA and the USSR. The current situation may not be an exact replica of the Cold War, but the saber-rattling, military build-up, hardening of alliances and animosities, exchanges of undiplomatic insults and accusations, tariffs and sanctions, calls for a decoupling of supply chains, as well as business, scientific and academic endeavours, and the escalating propaganda all indicate an ongoing "cold war" (or whatever you might choose to call it).
Then and Now comparisons
A key difference between the old Cold War and the new "cold war," both authors agree, is that last time the USA had a plan. Specifically, both books reference George Kennan's "long telegram" and subsequent article in Foreign Affairs detailing a master strategy for the American containment of the USSR. Both books lay heavy blame for the absence of a coherent American policy toward China on the Trump Whitehouse and more explicitly on the incoherence of President Trump himself.
Additionally, Mahbubani argues that:
In the current geopolitical contest between America and China, America is behaving like the Soviet Union, and China is behaving like America did in the Cold War. In the Cold War, America was often supple, flexible, and rational in its decision-making while the Soviet Union was rigid, inflexible, and doctrinaire.
Mahbubani dedicates a chapter to demonstrating how the structurally entrenched "rigidity and inflexibility of American decision making" cannot stop itself from constant increases in defense spending and military expansion. Military contractors, according to Mahbubani, target US politicians with promises to establish or expand manufacturing in their constituencies, ostensibly buying the votes needed to increase defense procurement. In contrast to America's uncontrollable defense spending, Mahbubani claims
The height of Chinese defense rationality is shown in their decision not to increase their stockpile of nuclear weapons. America has 6,450; China has 280. However, if 280 is enough to deter America (or Russia) from launching a nuclear strike on China, why pay for more?
Blindness and Insight
Rogin offers detailed insight into the chaos which reigned in the US response to China over the last four years but concludes that "the one part of the [Cold War] analogy that holds is that the CCP under Xi sees itself as being locked in an existential ideological and political struggle with the West." There is a blindness in this claim that China is in a cold war but the USA isn't which runs throughout Rogin's monograph, a constant denial that it takes two to tango or to have a cold war. In chapter after chapter, Rogin displays outrage and alarm at how business, security, and politics are suspected of intertwining in China, only to follow with detailed, well-informed exposition of the innumerable high-profile Americans who move seamlessly across business, academia, national security, the military, politics and government. To a non-American reader, it is somewhat shocking to read how many American business people and academics end up working for the CIA, the FBI, NSA, and various associated organizations, which Rogin reports without a blink of notice.
What is discourse analysis?
The most common of postmodern, post-structuralist, structuralist and semiotic observations is that we do not have access to reality. Our physical perceptions are limited, unreliable and tell us little about the world. What we know (or think we know) about the world comes to us through various cultural representations: through languages and images. Grammar is comprised of the rules for how words work inside complete sentences. (See What is English Grammar?) The purpose of grammar is to create redundancy. The purpose of redundancy is to create clarity. At its simplest, discourse is how sentences are connected together with words like "however," "therefore," "consequently," and so on. The purpose of discourse analysis is to recognize, establish and understand the meanings of discourses which by definition always extend beyond single sentences. The analysis of discourse, most obviously, includes a study of word choice, but also repetition and figurative language. More broadly a discourse is held together by a theme or motif and works with suggestion, allusion and connotation. Ultimately discourses are coherent with or incoherent in relation to other discourses. The current broad discourse in the USA is that China poses a threat to America and to the West in general. Truth (as I've argued in Does Knowledge Require Truth?) is uniquely a feature of those things which have meaning and is determined by how coherent one discourse is in relation to others. Truth holds until one of the links in the chain of truths is broken. At the moment, any discourse which presents China as an imminent threat is, consequently, taken as true. However, the relative truth value of a discourse must be measured against logic (inductive, deductive and abductive reasoning) and how many of the known facts a particular discourse is able to encompass coherently.
Why this digression in the middle of my discourse on the Sino-American cold war? Because I don't know the reality of what is happening in China. I don't really know what is going on in the USA. I'm even confused about what has been happening in Canada. I do, however, know, to some degree, what is being written and said, and how we are all called upon to judge the relative truth, the coherence of what we are being told.
US "Bingo Club" Journalist versus Singapore Ambassador to the UN
I have already established my disbelief in the postmodern notion of "the Death of the Author." Knowing who wrote it is always an important element of understanding the meaning of a text. A hundred pages into Chaos under Heaven, Josh Rogin, a journalist with the Washington Post, describes himself as a member of the "Bingo Club": "the secret group fighting China's influence operations" named after "a similar group of cops, spies, and experts who convened secretly in San Francisco in the late 1980s to confront the urgent espionage threat China posed at that time." Rogin's "secret group" [not so secret anymore I guess] is led by Peter Mattis, "a CIA counterintelligence analyst on China before leaving the agency to work in the private sector," who is also the nephew of the Trump-era Defense Secretary, James Mattis.
Kishore Mahbubani, who served for ten years as Singapore's ambassador to the UN, describes himself as having "cultural connections with diverse societies in Asia, where half of humanity lives, all the way from Tehran to Tokyo." The theme of his book is that American policy and attitudes are out of sync with the majority of the world's UN members. The USA has walked away or threatened to walk away from numerous global organizations and agreements, whereas most countries of the world and China, in particular, have been moving in the other direction. Mahbubani argues that most Americans are simply unaware of China's history, culture, and Asian geopolitical situation, and are apt to misinterpret its political ambitions.
Vocabulary and word choice
Rogin's choice of adjectives leaves little room for doubt about his attitudes and intentions toward China. He, thankfully, avoids the use of "evil," but China (the country, the CCP, companies and individuals) are copiously described as "malign," "bad-actor," "threatening," "aggressive," and "repressive." Here is a typical paragraph:
I got a call from an Asia expert friend who previously worked in the military but now consulted for the private sector. He was holding his own secret meeting to bring together like-minded Washington folks to think through a separate probtem [sic] emanating from China—the giant national champion technology firm Huawei. In less than a decade, this company had lied, cheated, and stolen its way to threatening domination over mobile networks around the world. This group wanted to strategize a way to stop it. [my bold emphasis]
Rogin's most frequently repeated and quoted claim is along the lines of "the dire threat China under CCP leadership posed to the United States." Despite his conclusion to the contrary, in order to specify the "threat," Rogin cites comparisons to the Cold War:
China's ambitions were in fact worldwide—that the CCP was trying to reshape the global order to fit its interests and that this posed an unacceptable threat to the security, prosperity, and health of free and open societies—then the comparison to the Cold War was useful, insofar as it helped one grasp the scope and scale and stakes of the challenge.
How does China pose a "dire threat" to the USA . . . and the world?
To illustrate the threat posed by Confucius Institutes, Rogin cites examples of Chinese authorities' insistence that Taiwan should not be identified as an officially independent country on websites and in documentation.
After claiming that the Huawei company has "lied, cheated, and stolen," Rogin offers no evidence to support this vocabulary. Rogin's "most famous example" of the Chinese threat was "in 2019 when China punished the NBA for one manager's tweet."
When Darryl Morey, manager of the NBA's Houston Rockets tweeted in support of pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong, there was a Chinese backlash. I found it interesting to learn that Morey was "a trained researcher and technology expert who worked for years in Washington’s national security community before joining the NBA." The NBA eventually apologized to China for the tweet and was consequently criticized by Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
Rogin reports that Joseph Tsai, a "Taiwanese-born naturalized Canadian billionaire" who owns the Brooklyn Nets, posted on Facebook that "hundreds of millions of Chinese" were insulted by Morey's tweet. Rogin claims that Tsai's "ties to Beijing run very deep, and his politics are completely in support of the CCP’s aims."
Still on the theme of the "dire threat" and the NBA, in October 2019, 15 young American-resident "Uyghur activists" chanted, carried posters and wore t-shirts protesting against Chinese repression in Hong Kong, in XUOR and against Lebron James who disagreed with the Morey tweet. The protestors were not allowed to carry their signs into the stadium. They were verbally attacked in Mandarin by a spectator after the game.
The individuals Rogin mentions are prominent activists. Bahram Sintash works for the US-funded Radio Free Asia and Ferkat Jawdat, whose protests of his mother's detainment in China have been widely publicized in the USA, was granted a meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The problem with Rogin's claims of China's being a dire threat to the USA and the world is that the concrete examples, like the NBA kerfuffle, never come close to supporting the level of his vocabulary.
American claimants of Chinese malfeasance like Sintash and Jawdat seem to receive significant US access and support. In Rogin's monograph, "Elaine Chao, Trump’s transportation secretary and the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell" is presented as an object of suspicion because of her family ties to China. Steven Mnuchin, Trump's Secretary of the Treasury, who, according to Rogin, "fought [ . . ] tooth and nail" against sanctions and a trade war with China, is presented, at turns, as a dupe and a sell-out to the Chinese masterplan of world domination.
A Different choice of words
The most repeated adjectives in Has China Won? would include: "rational," reasonable," "logical," "balanced," and "pragmatic." Hence, a typical paragraph from the Mahbubani monograph would be:
Common sense would dictate that both countries should cooperate in infrastructure. Yet, given the poisonous political attitudes toward each other, common sense cannot operate. This is why a major strategic reboot is needed in the relationship between the two powers. If the two powers first tried to define what their core national interests were—especially their core interests in improving the livelihoods of their people—they would come to the logical conclusion that there is fundamentally a noncontradiction between their national interests.
The Question of spin
Mahbubani and Rogin seem to deal with a similar handful of facts but each gives these facts a very different spin. For example, the fact that American companies are extensively invested and profiting in China, while China is extensively invested in the financial markets in the USA, at face value, might seem a good thing, a "win, win" as the Chinese love to say, and a guarantee of peace and prosperity for all. Similarly, the fact that China contributes billions to American universities, funding various scientific and academic collaborations, as well as Confucious Institutes to educate Westerners on the Chinese language and culture, at first glance, seems laudable.
Rogin is adamant that these entanglements are a threat to all that Americans hold dear. Mahbubani is full of praise for American universities, but Rogin details how Chinese funding of university programs has become an intense focus of US national security and secret services. Rogin himself signed up for a course at an American Confucius Institute and discovered nothing more perfidious than an effort to teach him Mandarin but assures the reader that these centers are designed for greater ulterior motives.
Rogin details how Americans end up investing in Chinese companies through index funds on the US stock markets. To exemplify the risks of investing in China, Rogin cites the China Hustle, a Netflix documentary, about the use of "reverse mergers" in which Chinese companies merge with a dormant company on the US market thereby allowing the Chinese company to be publically traded in the US. As the documentary shows, American speculators were eager to invest in Chinese companies. The con in this process is the misrepresented value of the underlying Chinese companies. [Very similar to what went on in the dot.com meltdown.] The problem with Rogin's argument is that, based on my viewing of the documentary, it isn't clear that this is uniquely and exclusively a Chinese hustle, and could equally well be described as an American hustle with Chinese participation. In fact, Chinese media revealed the scam years before American investors began to take notice.
A common complaint about China's "not following the rules," including in Rogin's book, is "forced technology transfer, intellectual property theft." As Mahbubani outlines, China has profited and progressed mightily since it joined the WTO (World Trade Organization) as a "developing country" in 2001. Mahbubani explains that, while some American businesspeople might resent the requirement, "under the WTO’s agreements on intellectual property, developed countries are under ‘the obligation’ to provide incentives to their companies to transfer technology to less developed countries.” Obviously, American businesses might rankle at Chinese companies' "playing the rulebook," the requirements and additional pressure to transfer data and intellectual property, but have accepted the situation as the price of doing business and making healthy profits. The current complaints stem from China's having so rapidly progressed from being a "developing country" to a super "developed country."
The USA's not-so-secret weapon
One fact that both Mahbubani and Rogin agree upon is that the USA's ultimate weapon against China is the American dollar, aka the Federal Reserve Note. (See also Petrodollar Warfare.) The US dollar is the "global reserve currency" meaning most international transactions are made with US currency. In other words, virtually every country in the world needs US dollars to buy stuff from other countries. Most of the money in the world's financial system is created by private banks and financial institutions (See The Truth about Money), but the process begins with the US Treasury printing "treasury bills" (basically IOUs from the US government) and selling them to institutions in the US and around the world. If you have US Treasury bills worth X amount, you are considered to have X amount of US dollars, which you can use to pay for things from other countries which might not be willing to accept your country's currency as payment. Being the country which supplies the money which other countries have to use works out very favourably for the USA.
As Mahbubani explains:
Domestically, the US government spends more than it collects in income. This creates a fiscal deficit. Internationally, America imports more goods than it exports. This creates a trade deficit. How does America pay for these twin deficits? It borrows money.
Unlike other countries whose currencies would be devalued and economies collapse if they over-extended their borrowing,
America can fund its twin deficits and pay for its excess expenditures by printing Treasury bills. The US Treasury only has to pay for the cost of paper. In return for handing out pieces of paper, the rest of the world sends real money (hard-earned cash) to buy the US Treasury bills. For example, Chinese workers have to work hard to produce low-cost goods to export to the rest of the world. These exports receive hard-earned dollars, which the Chinese government converts to yuan to pay to the workers. What does the Chinese government do with these hard-earned dollars? It uses many of these to buy US Treasury bills. The US Treasury then uses these dollars from China to pay for excess government expenditures. For the record, the largest purchasers of US Treasuries are China ($1.113 trillion), Japan ($1.064 trillion), Brazil ($306.7 billion), the United Kingdom ($300.8 billion), and Ireland ($269.7 billion).
Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and TibetRogin's book and most Western media reports on China's relations with Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet tend to use a typical array of terms: "genocide," "cultural genocide," "ethnic cleansing," "repression," "invasion," etc. These discourses are striking for what they leave unsaid--the historical, cultural, political and even geographical context. For example, most reports on the Uyghur genocide leave out discussion of the East Turkestan separatist movement, Uyghur terrorist attacks in Xinjiang and throughout the Middle East, or even that the USA has imprisoned Uyghur in Guantanimo.
Articles on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong rarely include reference to the fact that China was forced to surrender Hong Kong to the British Empire and to accept imports of opium as a consequence of the Opium Wars.
As US naval forces are building up in preparation to defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion, there is little recognition that since Taiwan already enjoys de facto independence with goods, services and people able to move in both directions from Taiwan to China, Taiwan has little need for "official" independence, and China has little motivation to invade.
Reports on the Chinese annexation of Tibet in 1949 and ongoing "cultural genocide" rarely include reference to the Seventeen Point Agreement between China and Tibet, which included provisions such as
The central authorities will not alter the existing political system in Tibet. The central authorities also will not alter the established status, functions and powers of the Dalai Lama. Officials of various ranks shall continue to hold office.
The established status, functions and powers of the Panchen Ngoerhtehni shall be maintained.
By the established status, functions and powers of the Dalai Lama and of the Panchen Ngoerhtehni are meant the status, functions and powers of the thirteenth Dalai Lama and the ninth Panchen Ngoerhtehni when they had friendly and amicable relations with each other.
The policy of freedom of religious belief as laid down in the common program shall be carried out. The religious beliefs, customs and habits of the Tibetan people shall be respected, and lama monasteries shall be protected. The central authorities will not effect a change in the income of the monasteries.
After signing, the Tibetan government in exile facilitated by the CIA repudiated the peace treaty. Would the inclusion or exclusion of these facts from the predominant discourse make any difference? To those who are fully committed to the Manichean vision of a morally superior USA and China as an evil empire (or the exact reverse), the facts won't make much difference. To undecided skeptics, like me, a discourse that attempts to be inclusive, comprehensive, contextualized, balanced and measured is what approaches coherent truth, and offers a rational way forward.
US Objectives in supporting independence movements in China
In a full-page opinion piece in the Globe and Mail, Roger Garside, author of China Coup: The Great Leap to Freedom, argues that
[ . . ] the U.S. and its allies must make regime change in China the highest goal of their strategy toward that country. This is not a goal that governments can openly declare, but it is one they must actively pursue.This well-known secret is the only explanation, in pragmatic terms, for US-backed support for independence movements in regions of China. As a consequence, logically, it would be impractical, in fact, political suicide, under the present conditions, for the Chinese regime to soften its stance vis-a-vis democracy and independence in these regions.
Differences of culture
Western discourse on China is inevitably couched in terms of "freedom," "democracy," and "human rights," but such claims seem credulous. The People's Republic of China operates under a communist system. The presumed ethical underpinning of the system is utilitarianism, the greatest good for the greatest number. Western democracies operating in a capitalist system are based on egoism, whatever is good for the individual is ethical. The prioritizing of individual human rights over other concerns and values is a mark of Western democracies even while they struggle to act according to their own ethical standards. Communist China, in contrast, clearly prioritizes what is good for the majority: security, peace, even solidarity over the rights of the individual. The constant complaint against communist China failing to operate according to a democratic system of Western values seems willfully naive.
As Mahbubani puts it:
Americans hold sacrosanct the ideals of freedom of speech, press, assembly, and religion and also believe that every human being is entitled to the same fundamental human rights. The Chinese believe that social needs and social harmony are more important than individual needs and rights and that the prevention of chaos and turbulence is the main goal of governance. In short, America and China clearly believe in two different sets of political values.
These days, across the political spectrum, understanding the opposition is seen as a sign of weakness. (See Madness and Terrorism: Between Sympathy and Understanding.) But what is the alternative?
Meanwhile in Canada
Roger Garside claims it is an ominous sign for communist China "that public opinion in a country as pacific and measured in its outlook as Canada should have evolved as it has." Has Canadian public opinion about China "evolved" or was it decided for us?
Both Rogin and Mahbubani recognize Canada as a trusted ally of the USA. However, both mention that when Trump imposed tariffs on China, he imposed them on Canada at the same time.