U.S. China Conflict

James Petras

The resolution of
the conflict between China and the U.S. is over much more than the U.S.
airpeople and airplane in Chinese possession and the question of a U.S.
apology. What is at stake is sovereignty versus hegemony, ideology versus
trade, and the old Cold War versus the new Cold War. In the United States,
elites are in conflict on how to relate to China; the same is true in China
with relation to its policies to the U.S.

The first and
foremost issue is the question of sovereignty. China claims 200 nautical miles
off its coast as off-limits to spy planes, a practice the U.S. upholds with
regard to its coastline. Washington however, claims China has only a 12-mile
claim. The U.S. thus admits its spy plane was flying within Chinese claimed
airspace—within its 200 mile limits and doing so on a routine basis. It is, of
course, unimaginable for the U.S. to tolerate Chinese spy planes 13 miles off
the New York, Los Angeles, or Washington coastline. Why does Washington
intrude in China’s 200-mile limits? It is not for technical reasons—the
electronic equipment used for espionage functions equally well from 13 as well
as 200 miles. There are two reasons. One is to test China’s military
readiness, its air force capability, and its level of organization to
intercept a potential air attack. The second is to challenge China’s hegemony
in the South China Sea. Washington’s world hegemony is unwilling to recognize
China’s claims of regional hegemony. Throughout the world, particularly in
Europe and Latin America, the U.S. has “colonized” air space, military bases,
and naval ports. For example, U.S. airplanes routinely intrude in airspace
throughout Latin America via military installations established in those
countries. The U.S. spy planes are probing the degree to which it can
“colonize” Chinese airspace. The Chinese government and especially its people
are not willing to submit to U.S. hegemonic pretension: they do not consider
themselves as docile clients.

China’s demand
for a formal apology thus has a deeper meaning. It signifies that the U.S.
treat China as an equal, in the concrete sense that, like the U.S., its 200
mile airspace is inviolate and that China can exercise influence in its
proximate region (the South China Sea). Washington’s refusal to apologize was
a tacit rejection of China’s claims, and a reaffirmation of its hegemonic
position in the China Sea. Like the “accidental” bombing of the Chinese
Embassy, the U.S. was sending a signal to China that U.S. hegemony everywhere
is not negotiable.

Within the Bush
administration there is a conflict between the ideologues and the traders. The
ideologues (led by Cheney and Rumsfeld), backed by the military industrial
complex, want a new Cold War. They seek to confront China militarily and
ignite a profitable arms race. The traders (led by Colin Powell) are basically
those economic elites who have invested over $100 billion and who are involved
in the $120 billion trade with China. They believe that the U.S. can “conquer”
China via the market and diplomacy over a period of time. The conflict between
these two sectors of the Bush administration explains the policy of “threats”
and “negotiations.” The big problem is that the traders are not willing to
accept China’s definition of its sovereignty. Instead they offer
symbolic/diplomatic concessions, expressing “regret” over the incident,
without resolving or even recognizing the underlying substantive claims of
Chinese sovereignty over its airspace.

In China, the
conflict is between liberals versus nationalist. The liberals (led by the
president and foreign minister) have been willing to sacrifice issues of
sovereignty in order to deepen the privatization of the Chinese economy,
secure foreign investments, and increase trade. The nationalists (mainly the
Armed Forces and a minority in the regime) defend sovereignty over
liberalization. After the bombing of the Embassy, the liberals were forced to
postpone World Trade Organization negotiations; the nationalists are a
powerful pressure, pushing for the unification of Taiwan, and they are
questioning the further liberalization of the economy in light of growing
foreign control.

The spy plane’s
violation of Chinese air space aided the nationalists as it highlighted the
growing encroachment and blatant violations of Chinese sovereignty. In this
conflict, the nationalists have the overwhelming support of the Chinese
people. Nevertheless, it is likely that the liberals accepted a “symbolic”
solution, which ignores the underlying problem of Chinese sovereignty. In
these circumstances, the Chinese elite tied to U.S. multi-nationals, cannot
openly embrace the Bush solution, without exposing themselves to the wrath of
the pro-nationalist majority. The agreement between the U.S. “traders” and the
Chinese “liberals” was reached secretly and the full details are still

A major problem
in the secret negotiations now is that the ideologues in the U.S. are still
operating with the old Cold War mentality: they act as if China is still a
communist country instead of a foreign investors’ paradise. They operate with
a military confrontational definition of reality, at a time when the U.S.’s
imperial allies in Europe and Asia have a market definition of reality, based
on conquest via trade and investment. The ideologues operate with a 1950s
image of the world in which Washington could unilaterally impose its policies.
The influence of the ideologues is evident in the unilateral rejection of the
Kyoto Agreement with Europe on the control of green house gases, the
Anti-Missile Defense Agreement with Russia, the peace negotiations with North
Korea, and now the Chinese claim of influence in the South China Sea. The only
problem with the ideologues’ return to the past is that the world has changed
dramatically in the past half-century.

Europe is no
longer beholden to U.S. foreign aid—they are economic competitors with strong
social movements, such as the Greens and trade unions, which support Kyoto.
Industrial groups in Europe want to deepen their economic ties with China,
Korea, and Cuba. Political elites and peace groups reject U.S. missile
escalation. Even more significantly, the biggest U.S. multi-nationals
increasingly depend on profits from overseas investments. Fifty years ago,
less than 10 percent of their profits and sales came from outside the U.S.
Today, for the biggest firms, from 25 percent to 50 percent of their earnings
come from overseas investment and trade. The ideo- logues attempt to build
“fortress America” via unilateral military and economic policy, have isolated
the U.S. internationally and divided it internally.

Moreover, with
the decline of the stock markets, the economy in recession, unemployment and
job insecurity rising and the trade deficit growing, the U.S. public is more
concerned with domestic economic policies not overseas military adventures.
While the ideologues were trying to whip up chauvinist fervor over the issues
of the “captive” spy plane airpeople, the response thus far has been muted.

The ascendancy
of the ideo- logues’ worldview in the Bush regime would lead to a dangerous
situation world-wide. Trade and investment patterns would be disrupted. An
arms race would be ignited and resources would be reallocated toward military
spending. The Europeans would be forced to take sides, to choose between trade
or a costly new Cold War with no commensurate benefits. There would be some
positive side effects; war spending and economic recession might re-ignite
political and social opposition in the U.S. and Europe. The free market
ideology would crumble before the new statism driven by military imperatives.

The ideologues’
new Cold War, however, is not sustainable: it would deepen the recession in
the U.S. by cutting off vital overseas markets and trade and heighten internal
political and social conflicts. As Clausewitz once said, it is impossible to
wage war on two fronts and win.

In the end, the
“traders” in the Bush administration won out against the ideologues and
reached an agreement with the Chinese liberals. The billion dollar economic
interests of the U.S. multi-nationals were far more important than the
arguments of the ideologues. Likewise in China, the liberals, decided that
foreign investment and entrance into the World Trade Organization was more
important than sovereignty over airspace. Nevertheless, the underlying issues
and adversaries remain and new conflicts will likely re- emerge.

James Petras is the author of numerous articles on foreign policy. He teaches
sociology at SUNY Bing- hamton.