In the grimmest sense imaginable, this has already been an action-packed year.
Try, in fact, to imagine a summary of this moment in historical terms: Right now, in June 2020, we're experiencing a version of the 1918 "Spanish flu" pandemic; an instant rerun of the Great Depression; another round of the demonstrations and riots that occurred after the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968; and the equivalent of the Vietnam War protests (though this time in relation to a war not on civilians thousands of miles away but on Americans of color here at home). And oh yes, if that wasn't enough to sink any version of the Titanic, add in just one more piece of old history revisited, as TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, author of All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon's Perspective on Climate Change, points out today: a new Cold War of the kind that held the planet in its firm grip from the late 1940s until the Soviet Union imploded in 1991.
As the administration of Donald Trump, the captain of this particular Titanic (which has been smashing into icebergs for months now), ups the ante on hostilities -- economic, political, and military -- with China, I wouldn't make any bets about which of the planet's two great powers was going to implode this time. In fact, to the above stew of history, you need to add one more devastating factor that Klare has also written about recently, long in coming but distinctly of our moment. I'm thinking of climate change and the intensifying environmental destruction of this planet as humanity has always known it. Imagine, for instance, that, by 2100, parts of the north China plain, one of the most densely populated regions on earth, might be uninhabitable, and don't even start me on intensifying hurricanes in the eastern U.S., wildfires in the West, a megadrought in the Southwest, or floods in the Midwest.
Maybe the very idea of the rise and fall of great powers in the usual fashion is already passe' and we just haven't quite grasped that yet. Still, let's face it, a new Cold War, as Klare makes clear, is just what we don't need right now. Tom
The New Cold War with China
How Will It Affect You?
By Michael T. Klare
America's pundits and politicians have largely concluded that a new Cold War with China -- a period of intense hostility and competition falling just short of armed combat -- has started. "Rift Threatens U.S. Cold War Against China," as a New York Times headline put it on May 15th, citing recent clashes over trade, technology, and responsibility for the spread of Covid-19. Beijing's decision to subject Hong Kong to tough new security laws has only further heightened such tensions. President Trump promptly threatened to eliminate that city-state's special economic relationship with this country, while imposing new sanctions on Chinese leaders. Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans in Congress are working together to devise tough anti-Chinese sanctions of their own.
For anyone who can remember the original Cold War, the latest developments may seem eerily familiar. They bring to mind what occurred soon after America's World War II collaboration with the Soviets collapsed in acrimony as the Russians became ever more heavy-handed in their treatment of Eastern Europe. In those days, distrust only grew, while Washington decided to launch a global drive to contain and defeat the USSR. We seem to be approaching such a situation today. Though China and the U.S. continue to maintain trade, scientific, and educational ties, the leaders of both countries are threatening to sever those links and undertake a wide range of hostile moves.
Admittedly, some of the steps being discussed in Washington to punish China for its perceived bad behavior will have little immediate impact on the lives of Americans. A lot of the threats, in fact, may turn out to be little more than good old-fashioned chest thumping. Consider, for instance, the proposal floated by the top-ranking majority and minority members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Oklahoma Republican Jim Inhofe and Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed, to fund a multibillion dollar "Pacific Deterrence Initiative" intended to bolster American forces in Asia. That effort, they avowed, will "send a strong signal to the Chinese Communist Party that the American people are committed to defending U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific."
Well, that was easy! All we, the taxpaying citizens of the United States, need to do in this opening salvo of a new Cold War is salute Congress as it funnels yet more billions of dollars to the usual defense contractors and thereby "send a signal" to Beijing that we will "defend U.S. interests" somewhere far across the globe. (Now there's a moment to wave your American flag!)
But don't count on such a moment lasting long, not if a new Cold War starts in earnest. A quick look back at the original one should remind us that we'll all pay a price of some sort for intensifying hostility towards China (even if a hot war isn't the result). Perhaps, then, it's none too soon to consider how such a world would impact you and me.
A Feeble Economic Recovery
For most Americans, the first consequence of an intensifying Cold War could be a weaker than expected recovery from the Covid-19 economic meltdown. Anything that stands in the way of a swift rebound -- and a new Cold War with China falls into that very category -- would be bad news.
Unlike in the original Cold War, when Washington and Moscow maintained few economic ties, the U.S. and Chinese economies remain intertwined, contributing to the net wealth of both countries and benefiting this country's export-oriented industries like agriculture and civilian aircraft production. Admittedly, such ties have also harmed blue-collar workers who have watched their jobs migrate across the Pacific and tech companies that have seen their intellectual property purloined by Chinese upstarts. Donald Trump stoked resentments over just such issues to get himself elected in 2016. Since then, he's sought to disentangle the two economies, claiming we would be better off on our own. (America first!) As part of this drive, he's already imposed stiff tariffs on Chinese imports and blocked Chinese firms from gaining access to American technology.
Feel free to argue about whether China has abused international trade rules, as Trump and his allies have charged, and whether imposing tariffs (paid for by American importers and consumers, not Chinese suppliers) is the best way to address that country's economic rise. The key thing to note, however, is that economic growth in both places had slowed in the wake of Trump's trade war even before Covid-19 hit. As 2019 drew to a close, in fact, the prospect of yet higher tariffs and intensified economic warfare was already dragging down the whole global economy.
And while some experts believe that a relaxation of tariffs and other steps to improve U.S.-China trade would stimulate the economy in tough times, Trump and his China hawks, led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, appear to view this moment as the perfect opportunity to double down on anti-Chinese measures. The president has already hinted that he's prepared to order yet more tariffs on Chinese products and take other steps to hasten the "decoupling" of the two economies. "There are many things we could do," he told Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business in mid-May. "We could cut off the whole relationship."
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