09 March 2021

The New Yorker: “The Future of America’s Contest with China”

Half a century after Henry Kissinger led the secret negotiations that brought Nixon to China, he still meets with leaders in Beijing and Washington. At the age of ninety-six, he has come to believe that the two sides are falling into a spiral of hostile perceptions. I’m very concerned, he told me, his baritone now almost a growl. The way the relationship has deteriorated in recent months will feed, on both sides, the image that the other one is a permanent adversary. By the end of 2019, the Washington establishment had all but abandoned engagement with China. But there was not yet a strategy to replace it.

But Henry Kissinger considers America’s contest with China to be both less dire and more complex than the Soviet struggle. We were dealing with a bipolar world, he told me. Now we’re dealing with a multipolar world. The components of an international system are so much more varied, and the lineups are much more difficult to control.

For that reason, Kissinger says, the more relevant and disturbing analogy is to the First World War. In that view, the trade war is an ominous signal; economic polarization, of the kind that pitted Britain against Germany before 1914, has often been a prelude to real war. If it freezes into a permanent conflict, and you have two big blocs confronting each other, then the danger of a pre-World War I situation is huge, Kissinger said. Look at history: none of the leaders that started World War I would have done so if they had known what the world would look like at the end. That is the situation we must avoid. Westad agrees. The pre-1914 parallel is, of course, not just the growth in German power, he said. What we, I think, need to focus on is what actually led to war. What led to war was the German fear of being in a position where their power would not strengthen in the future, where they were, as they put it in the summer of 1914, at the maximum moment.

Evan Osnos

Another older article that retained its relevance. It covers a lot of topics, from the coupling of the US and Chinese economies in the context of globalization – an interdependency that will be hard, of not impossible, to fully roll back – to Xi Jinping’s embrace of Communism ideology as a counterpoint to Western ideals. The trends mentioned have continued and amplified over the past year, both the hard crackdown on Hong Kong protestors, and the soft measures designed to embellish the image of China in the eyes of the rest of the world.

America's contest with China illustration
With tensions rising over trade, espionage, and security, leaders in Washington and Beijing are wrestling to determine who will dominate the twenty-first century. Illustration by Golden Cosmos

Speaking of decoupling, there are worrying signs that the relationship between the UK and the EU is deteriorating in what seems to me a similar manner in the wake of Brexit. The numerous outstanding issues have generated a lot of friction these past two months, and the UK government seems intent on blaming everything on the other side, as it is convenient for internal politics – just as China and many other authoritarian governments are doing.

Xi believes that orthodox commitment to Communism is paramount as his country fends off Western influence. In a speech in 2013, he asked, Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? His answer: Their ideals and convictions wavered. In Beijing, an ideological revival is in flamboyant effect. Since June, the Party has been waging an old-fashioned dogmatic crusade, known as a “Correct the wind” campaign. In a modern twist, ninety million Party members have been given an app loaded with Xi’s speeches, quizzes about his life story, and videos on history. (The app keeps track of what they finish.) Xi Jinping thinks the whole place slacked off ideologically, Geremie Barmé, an independent historian and translator, said. This campaign is something the Communists have done a number of times when they feel things are a little bit out of control. Instead of city walls, the Party relies on digital defenses; day by day, censors purify the Internet of subversive ideas, and facial-recognition technologies track people’s comings and goings.

After four months of street demonstrations against Communist Party control, violence was growing. On the day of the parade in Beijing, demonstrators seeking to overshadow events in the capital clashed with police, and, for the first time, an officer shot a protester with live ammunition. Yan saw no prospect that Beijing would compromise. Violence will become a common phenomenon, he said. Like the Palestinian kids firing on Israeli police, but not as grave. The comparison struck me as odd, until I realized that, from Beijing’s perspective, Israel’s sequestering of the West Bank and Gaza has led to an agreeable scenario: a chronic but confined insurgency that does not threaten the country’s over-all security.

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