Cooperation with China on climate but conflict elsewhere won’t work
U.S. Navy warplanes fly in formation provocatively over the South China Sea. Confrontation with China on the one hand and simultaneous cooperation with China on climate are not possible. | U.S. Navy

The Biden administration claims it can follow a two-track policy with China: cooperation on climate and confrontation elsewhere. But it is hard to imagine how both are possible, especially with the existential climate crisis growing by the day. China could very well refuse to cooperate as long as the U.S. continues with its aggressive stance.

Each day nature sends “code red” warnings of a planet in peril and urgent reminders global cooperation and human solidarity are the only way to avert a climate and ecological catastrophe.

The upcoming UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland (Oct 31 – Nov.12) offers the next best opportunity for the global community to save itself. Every country will submit its nationally defined contribution (NDC) or how much it intends to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. If the goals meet the necessary targets, humanity can limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C and avoid the worst-case climate scenarios.

During the Earth Day Leader’s Summit, the Biden administration announced an ambitious and transformative plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50%  over 2005 levels by 2030. Passage of Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, both a human infrastructure and climate plan, is essential to achieving it.

Biden also articulates a new foreign policy “for the middle-class” with global cooperation around the climate crisis at the center. The Biden administration sees the climate crisis as the chief national security threat and foreign policy an extension of domestic policy.

However, Biden also identified China as a “strategic competitor.” And political, economic, and media forces are setting the stage for a new “Cold War” that could result in sweeping aside the climate agenda and undermining the COP26 global effort.

Global cooperation and human solidarity are essential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, assist vulnerable and resource-strapped countries in the global South, and deal with the growing climate refugee crisis, expected to reach 200 million people by 2050.

It stands to reason cooperation between the world’s two largest economies and emitters of greenhouse gases – the U.S. and China – is critical if humanity is to save itself and nature, which underscores the dangers inherent in a possible new “Cold War” at this pivotal moment.

Further, Biden is sending contradictory signals which may reflect contradictory economic and social forces, disagreements within the administration and U.S. ruling circles, and responses to pressures from the broad social justice and environmental movements.

On the one hand, the administration has taken some positive steps. They include the recent call between Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping, the announcement of an end-of-year Summit between the two, and the agreement to abide by the one-China policy with Taiwan. Finally, Biden stated to the United Nations. The U.S. is “not seeking — I’ll say it again — we are not seeking a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs.”

Whether the Biden Administration is taking these steps to reduce tensions before COP26 is not clear. They are welcome nonetheless.

Actions louder than words

However, actions speak louder than words, especially actions moving toward confrontation with China. A substantial part of the traditional foreign policy establishment is pushing for the new Cold War, decoupling the U.S. and China’s economic relationship, and imposing a military encirclement of China to force changes in China’s development model.

“Less than 24 hours after Biden and Xi spoke,” writes Ethan Paul, “reports quoting administration officials said that Washington was holding talks with top Taiwanese officials later that day, and was also considering changing the name of Taiwan’s representative office, a very sensitive issue for Beijing that previously landed Lithuania in hot water. News also broke that the administration was considering launching a new Section 301 investigation that could result in new tariffs, and that the White House would be hosting an in-person summit of the Quad next week.”

Other negative actions include:

Much of the foreign policy establishment or “blob” is united behind the new strategic competition with China (continuing the Trump administration policy), one that deals with China from a “position of strength.”

The AUKUS nuclear submarine deal and broader agreement on other strategic matters between the U.S., Australia, and Great Britain and then the meeting of the Quad (India, Australia, Japan, U.S) are deliberate attempts to build alliances to isolate China. As Paul writes, “the president doesn’t want a world divided into rigid blocks while dividing the world into rigid blocks.”

The Quad and AUKUS are part of a plan to establish military domination of the Pacific region and the armed encirclement of China. They come on top of the bilateral defense agreements between the U.S. and other Pacific rim nations militarizing the region.

China is responding by building up its military capability, which should come as no surprise. But military build-up could easily spin out of control and become a confrontation. As a result of the anti-China media campaign, 52% of Americans support sending troops to defend Taiwan. And modernization of nuclear arsenals and weapon systems and a new nuclear arms race between the U.S., China, and Russia, is elevating the danger and boosting the extreme-right, neo-fascists, and climate deniers.

In addition, the Biden administration is maintaining tariffs imposed by Trump against Chinese goods (tariffs that only hurt U.S. consumers). Trump imposed the tariffs to force China to make concessions to U.S. capital penetration, alter its socialist path of development, and reduce the state’s role in China’s economic, industrial, and technological development.

Ironically, Biden envisions a similar state role to rebuild the U.S. domestic manufacturing sector and infrastructure. Reinvesting in U.S.-based manufacturing also reverses outsourcing of jobs and deindustrialization that devastated communities, families, and unions. Rebuilding the U.S. manufacturing base is also seen as a national security issue, including undercutting the appeal of right-wing extremism.

The Biden administration will host a Summit of Democracies (Dec. 10-11) designed to divide the world between “democracies” and “autocracies” and build a global alliance against China. Meanwhile, the GOP, neo-fascists, and the extreme-right-wing subvert U.S. democratic institutions. The policy seeks to isolate China, undermining its bi-lateral relations, including trade relations with major capitalist powers and emerging economies, through the Belt-Road Initiative.

U.S. global hegemony and American exceptionalism, both based on the same hubris, national chauvinism, and arrogance that resulted in the disastrous U.S. occupations in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, still guide U.S. foreign policy. Biden’s insistence the U.S. doesn’t seek a new Cold War rests on developing the relations with China on the U.S.’s terms.

A new Cold War and military (and nuclear) arms race also fits the military and state security apparatus’s interests and the military conglomerates. They need a new external threat to justify immense military expenditures after Biden declared an end to the foreign policy centered on “forever wars” against global terrorism.

World has changed

But the world has changed immensely since 2001, and U.S. foreign policy experts need to come to grips with new realities. China has the world’s largest economy, and the U.S. and China economies are deeply interlinked, doing over $500 billion in trade each year. The U.S. is China’s largest trading partner, and its share of China’s exports was 22% in 2020, as high as it’s ever been.

Over 70,000 U.S. corporations do business in China, and direct investments continue to grow. Apple, for example, had its best 4th Q in 2020 in sales there. China is the second-largest holder of U.S. Treasury bonds. China is highly integrated into the global trade system, exports more than ever, and has overtaken the U.S. as the European Union’s top trading partner.

These developments are irreversible. Decoupling the two economies and isolating China and its 1.4 billion population is a fantasy in an era of increasing globalization and intertwining of interests. Decoupling would disrupt global trade and make Brexit look like child’s play. A significant section of U.S. capital, especially those heavily invested in trade and the Chinese market, is fiercely resisting this direction for these very reasons.

The era of U.S. single power supremacy is over. We live in a multi-polar world with many global and regional trading blocs and emerging economies. Humanity and nature are in the depths of the climate and ecological crises, unequal resource allocation, pandemics, poverty, and growing nuclear danger. The U.S. foreign policy should match these new realities, based on peaceful co-existence and cooperation addressing existential threats, economic and social development, and equitable and mutually beneficial trade. The U.S. could redirect military expenditures to address the climate crisis.

A foreign policy for the 21st century will have to recognize China’s national sovereignty and the legitimacy of China’s chosen path of development based on its history, culture, and traditions rather than seeking to undermine, alter, or overthrow or dismember it. Ambassador to the U.S. Qin Gang calls these China’s “red lines.” How would Americans react if China’s policies included military encirclement, “freeing” Hawaii, insistence on changes in our governance, and efforts to isolate us?

If “responsible competition without conflict” is what the U.S. seeks, then let it be over who can reach net-zero carbon emissions first. Or provide universal health care. Or produce and supply the most vaccines to the global South or assist in transitioning to green energy and dealing with climate resiliency. Or expand democratic rights, create social equality, provide affordable housing or eliminate poverty (China eliminated extreme poverty last year). Now that’s a competition we’d all love to see.


John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He is active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, where he attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs. He currently lives in Chicago.