Book Review: The US vs China: Asia’s New Cold War?
Fiona Edwards reviews Jude Woodward's latest book which surveys the relations between China and the US in Asia
‘The US VS China: Asia’s new Cold War’ is an insightful book which explores some of the biggest issues in international politics. It is an invaluable resource for anti-war activists and anyone interested in world politics and the struggle against US imperialism today.
The central question that the book addresses is whether the world is approaching a new cold war in Asia between the US and China. The reader will encounter a wealth of important facts, concise historical analysis of international relations over the past century and excellent analysis of contemporary political developments which illuminate the main features of the US’s growing orientation towards pursuing an aggressive, militarised intervention against China.
Of course, US intervention in Asia is far from a new phenomenon. The author, Jude Woodward, recalls the devastating history of US intervention in Asia in the 20th century - including the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the Korean war in the 1950s, the Vietnam war in the 1970s and today’s on-going war in Afghanistan. We are reminded of the brutality of US imperialism’s record in the region – killing millions of people in order to impose its own interests with horrendous implications for human rights.
What lies behind the thesis that the twenty first century may witness “a new Cold War” between the US and China, comparable to the Cold War of the twentieth century between the US and the USSR, is the impressive economic rise of China coinciding with the relative economic decline of the US. Both of these processes have been taking place for decades, yet the financial crash of 2008 has accelerated these trends, resulting in China fast becoming the world’s largest economy, overtaking the US.
As Woodward points out: “Even before the financial crisis, China’s gross domestic product (GDP) would have overtaken the US within a couple of decades, but following 2008 and the further slowing of growth in the US and the West this accelerated. Between 2007 and 2015 the Chinese economy more than tripled in size, while the US economy grew by only about 20 per cent.”
Consequently, the US establishment sees the rise of China as the main threat to maintaining US global domination. In response to this challenge, in 2010 under Barack Obama’s leadership the US announced a “pivot” to Asia in its foreign policy to prioritise dealing with China. The goal was to confront, contain and ultimately defeat the rise of China – a policy that Trump seeks to continue and deepen.
Thus, Woodward sets out that: “since 2010 the US has been engaged upon an ambitious project to shift the focus of its entire post-1945 policy towards China and Asia. In proclaiming the launch of ‘America’s Pacific century’, its aim was straightforward: to secure the future of American global leadership by preventing China emerging as the leading nation of Asia, in the way that its Atlantic alliances had halted the advancing influence of the USSR in Europe after the Second World War.”
The methods that the US deploys in seeking to contain China include various economic measures and the development of anti-China/pro-US alliances in the region which primarily depend on military collaboration and a huge military build-up and encirclement of China.
In assessing the successes and failures of the US’ “pivot” to China, Woodward surveys the US’s attempts to develop anti-China interventions in the region including with Russia, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, South Korea, Thailand, Mynamar, India and the Central Asian Republics.
The book explores key points of conflict where the US is seeking to exploit tensions for its own interests. For example, the book assesses the disputes over the South China Sea. As Woodward puts it, “the South China Sea is on the way to becoming the most contested body of water in the world.”
This is not least because the US military is hugely increasing in its naval forces in these waters:
“The US navy’s return to the Sea was extremely rapid. In 2012 the US negotiated an agreement with Australia for a US Marine base in Darwin, within striking distance of the South China Sea, which in 2016 it announced might also host US warships. In 2016 it gained agreement in principle to re-establish bases in the Philippines. In the meantime, there had been an impressive increase in naval visits; whereas in 2003 there were just six visits by US warships to ports in Malaysia, in 2012 there were over 50. US navy visits to the Philippines jumped from 54 in 2011 to 88 in 2012, and 72 in just the first six months of 2013. And more than 100 US planes began stopping over each month at Clark, the former US airbase in the Philippines.”
It’s not just the South China Sea which is seeing an increased US military presence. For example, the US has also increased its military presence in South Korea – spending $3.1 billion on its forces there in 2012 alone. At the same time the US is encouraging its most reliable and powerful ally in the region, Japan, to re-arm.
The US establishment have faced a number of problems in carrying out its dramatic reorientation of foreign policy towards containing China. Woodward points out that since the US announced its intention to draw down from other conflicts in order to “pivot” to China in 2010, in fact the US has waged war on Libya, been involved in a proxy war against Syria and backed a military coup in Egypt. At the same time the US has confronted Russia over Ukraine. These multiple and competing foreign policy objectives have diverted the attention of the White House and State Department from its self-proclaimed central objective of confronting China.
Yet China’s rise and growing influence internationally, particularly within Asia, continues apace. China’s enormous ‘One Belt One Road’ development project has been a priority for China’s economic foreign policy since 2013 under Xi Jinping’s presidency. This project has a massive scope – involving approximately 60 countries and a promise that China will eventually invest a cumulative $4 trillion. China’s trading links and economic collaboration with its neighbours across Asia has expanded massively over the past 20 years – with the very same countries that the US is trying to coax into an anti-China set of alliances, with the goal of isolating China politically and economically.
The choice facing countries in Asia, between the US and China, is characterised by Woodward as between US “guns” or China’s “butter”. As she puts it:
“In the final analysis, while the US primarily offers a special relationship with the greatest armed force on the planet, China offers a close economic and trading relationship with the most dynamic global economy. The US argues that a strengthened China will disrupt the stability of Asia and therefore America is needed to guarantee the peace. China counters that an integrated Asia based on mutual benefit can deliver economic development, growth and prosperity for all and it is the US that stirs up conflict.”
‘The US VS China: Asia’s new Cold War?’ is a must read for those wishing to understand what will be the most important global relationship of the coming decades.