There is much dispute over the function of Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan: was it a moment of madness, or a signal decision of brilliance? Now U.S.-China relations are fraying on a range of issues, from climate change to military technology, is more tension really needed? Yes, it is — but this almost completely misses the point about what is really at stake in this conflict. Let me explain.
I have spoken before about the function of ‘dangerous distractions’ in great power politics. They serve a diplomatic purpose, and therefore in a sense a strategic purpose, of projecting power and confidence to the world, but only to mask underlying weakness. This follows Sun Tzu’s dictum in the Art of War that deception involves projecting strength and weakness to mask the reality of power, in order to confuse the enemy as to one’s actual strength. This is certainly the case with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which masks Russia’s fundamental weakness in economic, and therefore ultimately military, terms. The details of the conflict show Russia’s abilities, and accordingly its ambitions, to be much more limited than the media makes out. We condemn Russia as an ‘aggressor’, failing to see that Russia lacks the ability to aggress any single great power anymore. It picks fights with small countries with limited western backing, and finds itself bogged down in a quagmire, as western countries did in Syria in the last decade (when Russia’s air support for the Assad dictatorship was decisive). In all this roaring madness about ‘appeasement’ versus ‘containment’ of the spectre of Russian communism, we have forgotten the country where the communist party did not fall, and which retains a sufficient degree of power to undermine the entire system of world stability: China.
Indeed, NATO’s expansion towards Russia has essentially pushed Russia into China’s lap, as demonstrated by the $400 billion deal exchanging Russian gas for Chinese capital in 2014. Now Germany is losing Russian gas and the west finds itself mired in oil-deficient energy price inflation. Surely, we saw this coming?
The story with China is much more the same, if not potentially more tragic. China was accepted into the World Trade Organisation in 2001, a decade after the Japanese and Russian economies went into a tailspin through the 1990s, neutralising the geopolitical threats that Japan and Russia posed to American hegemony, which is the only force (bar the mutually assured destruction of great powers’ nuclear weapons) that has prevented the return of violent world war since 1945. Since then, predictably, China has beaten its western rivals at every turn, growing when western economies were tanking after their financial crisis of 2007-9, and surviving somehow on both health and economic metrics after the devastating coronavirus crisis of 2020-present.
China now has laid the economic foundations for military might, as France did in the eighteenth century before the Napoleonic wars, as Germany did in the nineteenth century before the world wars, and as Russia did in the 1930s before the Great Patriotic War which defeated the latest Western European power to attempt to march on Moscow in the winter, and which also preceded Russia’s invasion of Eastern Europe and the ensuing Cold War with America. Of these three challengers to the hegemony of Britain and, then, America, Germany’s challenge was the most devastating — but went hand-in-hand with Japan’s conquest of much of Asia bordered by the Pacific Ocean, bringing America into the war with the attack on Pearl Harbour. Russia and Japan were the threats after France and Germany that most worried American strategists in the late twentieth century. But it was Napoleon who said of China: ‘Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world’.
How on Earth did we not see this coming? And why did we do nothing about this? Why was China allowed to grow this powerful? A lot has to do with America’s victory at the end of the Cold War, and the complacent story of the ‘End of History’, taken to mean the end of geopolitics, as well as the end of great ideological struggle (a rhetorical story plastered over the geopolitical calculations of the past century or more). Political theorist John Mearsheimer is often ridiculed for his apologetics for Russia’s fears about NATO, but he has been proven right for certain about China, after claiming in 2005 that ‘China cannot rise peacefully’ due to the inexorable connection between economic power and military might. He argued in 2003 that the Iraq War was a mistake, despite fellow ‘realist’ Henry Kissinger (architect of much of America’s strategy in the Cold War under the Nixon administration) claiming that America should intervene to contain the terrorist threat it, itself, created in Afghanistan (financing the predecessors of the Taliban and al-Qaeda against the Soviet Union in the 1980s). The world wars made America cautious and pragmatic. The Cold War made America hubristic and prideful to a fault. The dream of spreading democracy became the current hell that has engulfed the Middle East, from Iraq to Libya to Yemen.
America has completely missed the growing threat of China, and willingly embraced it in international trade, even allowing China as we speak to integrate itself into the financial system, serving as an alternative to American hegemony over the international real and fictitious economy. America has forgotten its role as ruler of states and anchor of trade, pretending instead to be empire of the cosmos. Like the late Roman Empire, America now finds itself mired in a culture war about ultimate values — or, like late nineteenth-century Western Europe, in Weber’s world of ‘many gods and demons’. We have forgotten the human dimension which persists: the desire for power which rules the heart of every man, and the pursuit of profit which has infected the mind of every person with a wallet.
The market of the world has become the market of the mind. We are blind to reality, trapped in the fantasy of the commodity. It is time to wake up from this imaginary fantasy to the brutal reality of great power politics, plastered onto a market society of class conflict. Educated servile professionals, disdainful of their hard-working industrial forbears, now rule western democracies, pretending to see the future when all they see is their erasing pocket books. Meanwhile, mobile oligarchs support dreamy upstarts like Theranos, which drew the support of Nixon and Reagan era know-it-alls like Henry Kissinger and George Shultz. ‘The realists’, conservative writer Niall Ferguson calls them. Seriously?
Ferguson also, nonetheless, believes that the connection between China and America is a mere chimera — terming their fateful economic entanglement ‘Chimerica’. This argument in the late 2000s anticipated the more recent account by Klein and Pettis that ‘trade wars are class wars’, and that the savings glut of the Chinese economy accelerated the overburdening of the U.S. financial system by useless purchasing of bonds and Treasuries, rendering America dependent on China in times of crisis. But this superficial dependence overlies something more cold about great power politics: China may produce many of the worlds goods, but America consumes them. America can buy goods from elsewhere, and now has the means through fracking to channel its own energy into production, without the aid of Saudi oil.
There is a fundamental tragedy to this story. It is structurally impossible for climate change, China, and capitalism to all be contained — but it is structurally necessary for them all to be addressed if any are to be prevented from spilling over into open conflict. The logical conclusion is that open conflict is practically inevitable, and that the clock is ticking down towards oblivion. As a result, great powers’ actions can be rationalised as damage limitation, not as a means of preventing conflict, but as a means of placing themselves in the best strategic position for winning the coming war. This is plain from RAND’s scenario planning for U.S.-China conflict and the consequent collapse of world trade. The U.S. defence elite has seen the future, and it is preparing for war. Preventing it is the job of politicians, who have long since decayed into performative blunderers.
Pelosi’s Taiwan visit is, in a sense, an exception to this rule, but it has a certain rhetorical hollowness to it. Taiwan is key to global trade in semiconductors, as the main producer of these components for digital technology. But beyond that, Taiwan is not as central as, say, the South China Sea, through which flows trillions of dollars worth of oil, every day. Why did Pelosi visit Taiwan, not, say, the strait of Malacca, whose blockade could undermine either America or (more likely) China’s energy supply? And why is attention being drawn on maps to Taiwan, not the islands on the South China Sea which China has already taken over, and has already militarised? Taiwan is a ‘flashpoint’. It is, in a sense, a proxy dispute, conflict, or (potentially) war. It is not where the real war will be fought — but it may be where it begins. Hence, Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is a calculated blunder.
Trump’s trade war with China is much more decisive, as it begins the process of breaking off trade relations with the giant that threatens the trading order over which America currently presides as the anchor, and ruler, of our international market society. Biden has not ended the trade war — but neither has he accelerated or escalated it considerably. If America wanted to stop China in its tracks, it would move towards complete isolation of China from the world economy. If Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is to be more calculation than blunder, than rhetoric must be transformed into reality: China must be contained — completely, quickly, and decisively. Or the world will suffer the consequences.