This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.
For just a moment, let me try to look on the bright side of the storming of the Capitol last week by a mob incited and dispatched by President Trump. When George W. Bush, the president who launched the Global War on Terror and then invaded Saddam Hussein's Iraq, referred to what happened as an "insurrection" ("This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic"), you knew you'd spent a long day in hell. Here, to my mind, is the only potential upside when it comes to a president who has proven himself too disorganized and self-centered even to make a good autocrat.
On that capital (or do I mean Capitol?) day last week, he might have shot his wad and I suspect that means and here's that sunny spot, just in case you aren't sure what's bright and what's dim anymore Donald Trump's made it significantly harder for himself to deliver a foreign-policy October Surprise in the last days of his "presidency." In particular, he made it less likely (though how much less we won't know until January 20th) that he would order some kind of attack on Iran, throwing the Middle East into chaos for the new Biden administration just as he himself would be jumping ship.
True, not so long ago, he countermanded his carefully chosen secretary of defense's order to send the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and its task force home from the Persian Gulf. He demanded that it remain there instead, threatening Iran. At the time, it looked as if, in conjunction with Benjamin Netanyahu's Israel, he might indeed be preparing for just such a January Surprise. In addition, nuclear-armed B-52s continue to fly ominously, two at a time, from the U.S. to the Persian Gulf and back and it's true as well that a worried Nancy Pelosi recently discussed with Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the president's access to the nuclear codes" gulp!
At this point, I think it's just possible, however, that Milley & Co. might refuse to follow such last-minute Iran orders if they were issued. The same, by the way, goes for China where Trump and the Pentagon have continually upped the ante, militarily and economically. Still, "our" lame-ducklet of a president, who has ratcheted up such Sino-American tensions with a helping hand from the U.S. military, may find that he's incited his last assault on anyone for a while. That would mean, as TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, author of All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon's Perspective on Climate Change, makes clear today, that, in the mess of a world Joe Biden will inherit, there will be an increasingly irritated China to deal with. How he handles what, in our ever more overheated moment, is undoubtedly the most important relationship on the planet, as Klare suggests, may determine much about the years to come. Tom
President Biden's China Conundrum
Can He Achieve Progress Where It Matters While Avoiding a New Cold (or Hot) War?
Soon-to-be President Joe Biden will instantly face a set of extraordinary domestic crises a runaway pandemic, a stalled economy, and raw political wounds, especially from the recent Trumpian assault on the Capitol but few challenges are likely to prove more severe than managing U.S. relations with China. While generally viewed as a distant foreign-policy concern, that relationship actually looms over nearly everything, including the economy, the coronavirus, climate change, science and technology, popular culture, and cyberspace. If the new administration follows the course set by the preceding one, you can count on one thing: the United States will be drawn into an insidious new Cold War with that country, impeding progress in almost every significant field. To achieve any true breakthroughs in the present global mess, the Biden team must, above all else, avert that future conflict and find ways to collaborate with its powerful challenger. Count on one thing: discovering a way to navigate this already mine-laden path will prove demanding beyond words for the most experienced policymakers in Biden's leadership ensemble.
Even without the corrosive impacts of Donald Trump's hostile diplomacy of recent years, China would pose an enormous challenge to any new administration. It boasts the world's second-largest economy and, some analysts say, will soon overtake the United States to become number one. Though there are many reasons to condemn Beijing's handling of the coronavirus, its tough nationwide clampdown (following its initial failure to acknowledge the very existence of the virus, no less the extent of its spread) allowed the country to recover from Covid-19 faster than most other nations. As a result, Beijing has already reported strong economic growth in the second half of the year, the only major economy on the planet to do so. This means that China is in a more powerful position than ever to dictate the rules of the world economy, a situation confirmed by the European Union's recent decision to sign a major trade and investment deal with Beijing, symbolically sidelining the United States just before the Biden administration enters office.
After years of increasing its defense expenditures, China now also possesses the second most powerful military in the world, replete with modern weaponry of every sort. Although not capable of confronting the United States on the high seas or in far-flung locales, its military the People's Liberation Army, or PLA is now in a position to challenge America's longstanding supremacy in areas closer to home like the far western Pacific. Not since Japan's imperial expansion in the 1930s and early 1940s has Washington faced such a formidable foe in that part of the world.
In critical areas scientific and technological prowess, diplomatic outreach, and international finance, among others China is already challenging, if not overtaking America's long-assumed global primacy. On so many fronts, in other words, dealing with China poses an enormous conundrum for America's new leadership team. Worse yet, the destructive China policies of the Trump administration, combined with the authoritarian and militaristic policies of Chinese President Xi Jinping, pose immediate challenges to Biden when it comes to managing U.S.-China relations.
Trump's Toxic Legacy
Donald Trump campaigned for office pledging to punish China for what he claimed was its systemic drive to build its economy by looting the American one. In 2016, he vowed that, if elected president, he would use the power of trade to halt that country's nefarious practices and restore American global primacy. Once ensconced in the White House, he did indeed impose a series of tariffs on what now amounts to about $360 billion in Chinese imports a significant barrier to improved relations with Beijing that Biden must decide whether to retain, loosen, or eliminate altogether.
Even more threatening to future cordial relations are the restrictions Trump placed on the access of Chinese companies to U.S. technology, especially the advanced software and computer chips needed for future developments in fifth generation (5G) telecommunications. In May 2019, claiming that leading Chinese telecom firms like Huawei and ZTE Corporation had links to the PLA and so represented a threat to American national security, Trump issued an executive order effectively barring those companies from purchasing American computer chips and other high-tech equipment. A series of further executive orders and other moves followed that were aimed at restricting Chinese companies from gaining access to U.S. technology.
In these and related actions, President Trump and his senior associates, notably Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and top trade adviser Peter Navarro, claimed that they were acting to protect national security from the risk of intelligence operations by the PLA. From their statements at the time, however, it was evident that their real intent was to impede China's technological progress in order to weaken its long-term economic competitiveness. Here, too, Biden and his team will have to decide whether to retain the restrictions imposed by Trump, further straining Sino-American ties, or to reverse course in an effort to enhance relations.
The China Crisis: Military and Diplomatic Dimensions
(Note: You can view every article as one long page if you sign up as an Advocate Member, or higher).