Thursday, May 28, 2020

At War with China

Like it or not, the game is on. Well, not exactly the game, but Cold War II seems to be off and running. This despite the fact that your humble blogger has joined the ranks of those warning against.

As American politicians, especially those who lean toward the right, are inveighing about the evils of Chinese Communism, China is making moves on the global chessboard. Yesterday, the ongoing crackdown on Hong Kong advanced with a new resolution passed by the party congress. The resolution removed one of the last vestiges of Hong Kong's autonomy with new security laws.

And, by the way, China’s puppet state, North Korea is going back into the nuclear arms development business. So, one of the casualties of the anti-China rhetoric is the end of negotiations with North Korea.

Hopefully, our great thinkers who have been engaging in rhetorical warfare against China knew that this was going to happen. Hopefully, they have prepared a countermove. Good chess players always think several moves ahead.

I suspect that it’s really all about politics, about managing the political fallout of the coronavirus epidemic. I will dispense with my thoughts about the politics of it all and pass the baton to Harvard professor James Hankins, who lays out some salient points in Quillette.

Hankins begins by saying that many of our current policy decisions, from the Cuomo management of New York coronavirus cases to the disincentives to work lying in the CARES act, were based on fear. The same emotion, in his view, has caused the latest round of China-bashing:

Politicians and commentators left and right have been competing to march us into a new Cold War. Hold the Chinese responsible! Sue them! Impound their US bank accounts! Uproot all our supply chains that pass through China! Show China who is boss in the South China Sea! Send Chinese students back to China before they can steal all our technology and spread their diseases! The Chinese have deliberately infected the world, and they must be punished!

As for the notion that China deliberately unleashed the coronavirus, Hankins offers this counterargument:

The Chinese government certainly made some terrible mistakes. But our new Cold Warriors fail to apply Hanlon’s razor, “never attribute to malice what is adequately explained by stupidity.” Or in this case, what can be explained by the reluctance of bureaucrats everywhere to incur responsibility and their eagerness to conceal mistakes.

At the least, this provides an alternative way to interpret what happened.

And he summarizes some of China’s countermoves on the global chessboard:

Stung by criticism from around the world, China has gone from carefully calibrated microaggressions in the South China Sea to crude threats of economic reprisals against nations like Australia that are calling for independent investigations of the Wuhan virus. It has gone from crisis management in Hong Kong to open violations of its guarantees of “one country, two systems.” 

As I have noted on this blog, the Chinese Communist Party counterpunches. Our Republican solons ought to have grasped what that means by watching President Trump engage in it for over three years now.

And he also notes a point that I and others have also made. Today’s Communist Party is not Mao’s Communist. China is not driven by ideology. Hankins remarks:

We are not ideological rivals the way America and the Soviet Union were before 1991. The Chinese system, despite the label on the package, is not communist. China, like the US, has a mixed economy, heavily regulated by the state, with a partially free market. Like us, they allow an enormous amount of wealth to be held in private hands. The Chinese government is not trying to export communist ideology the way the Soviets did; it is more interested in exporting semiconductors. Professions of belief in Marxist ideals coming from Chinese leaders are no more sincere than the respect paid to the ideals of the American Founding by members of the regressive Left on US campuses. No Chinese version of Nikita Krushchev is rattling nukes at us and shouting “We will bury you!” The voices in contemporary America urging the people to revolt against their capitalist oppressors are not being funded secretly by China. The greatest threats to American freedoms and American prosperity are coming from both parties in Congress, not from the CCP.

And, let’s not forget the social media giants like Twitter who have taken it upon themselves to censor conservative voices.

And, while Hankins proposes that we maintain cultural ties with China, he also adds that we should maintain trading ties with China. We can and should renegotiate them, as the Trump administration has been doing, but declaring war on China is not going to produce fairer trading relationships:

We need to maintain economic ties as well. The law of comparative advantage remains no less true now than it was in the pre-COVID era. That does not mean we can abandon practical judgement in the application of that law. An economic law is not a moral principle. But it is rational to have a preference for free trade so long as our trade partners do not take advantage of us, and so long as free trade does not increase risks to our citizens of low wages or high unemployment. Free trade should also not be allowed to endanger national security, including health security. Free trade under the right conditions, however, makes all participants better off and also gives them common interests, making them more reluctant to use violence against each other.

So, Hankins proposes a rational approach:

Let’s be rational on China. We don’t have to like the current Chinese political system or the CCP. Like most Americans, I strongly prefer the ordered liberty of our democracy, whatever its current discontents. But we don’t need to have another Cold War. It hardens our hearts and wastes our resources. Let’s stop the war while we still can.

I do not believe, in a political season, with the rhetoric being driven to extremes, that this is entirely realistic. But, having perspective is not a bad thing, even as the world economy is being further damaged by Cold War II.


Anonymous said...

' But our new Cold Warriors fail to apply Hanlon’s razor, “never attribute to malice what is adequately explained by stupidity.”

To expand a bit further on this and other conspiracy concepts... look for who has *control* as opposed to who seems to benefit. Any reasonably competent actor needs to be able to control the fallout from the activity.

China plainly was not able to control either the physical or political fallout from this which tends to strongly suggest it was actually a major screw-up (like Chernobyl) rather than an act of aggression.

David Foster said...

"China is not driven by ideology"....Neither the Kaiser's Germany nor rulers of 1930s & 1940s Japan were driven by a universalist ideology in the sense that the Soviet Union was; they were driven by ordinary great-power expansionism, carried to extremes.

This did not mean that they weren't a threat.

UbuMaccabee said...

I'm with David on this one. The ruling caste in China came from the CCP and remain members of the CCP. They are not driven by Marxist ideology, but so what? They are driven by a belligerent nationalist ideology and practice a form of aggressive mercantilist capitalism. They are dangerous. They actually do remind me of Japan in the 1930's. Asia for China.

But we will not compete or defeat them with rhetoric and international shaming. That is worse than useless; it is a weakness and the Chinese see it that way. You beat them in the market--and beat them hard. Lie, cheat, steal; gloves off. Otherwise, get used to being told what to do by the Chinese. The other nations will align with the strong horse here.

trigger warning said...

"The Chinese system, despite the label on the package, is not communist."

Methinks the Chinese Communist Party has already voted on this claim. :-D

autothreads said...

I wonder if Hankins has financial ties to China. Seems to be more common among American academics than we'd want.

No Chinese version of Nikita Krushchev is rattling nukes at us and shouting “We will bury you!”

If you look at what Chinese political and military leaders have said, it's quite clear that they intend to dominate the world and that their political system will win out in the end.