We live in uncertain times. The human race is facing its biggest crisis yet, perhaps similar to the one that extinguished the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. This time around, though, the crisis may not happen due to a big asteroid crashing down on our planet, causing clouds of dust and ash to rise, blocking out the sun, and destroying the ozone layer that protects life from harmful cosmic radiation. Instead, our crisis is a slow agony that is happening because of our extreme stupidity.
We are dogfighting about trade wars, starting wars over some stupid border disputes. We easily announce embargos, start cold wars, order sanctions and let the pandemic ravage on. But we forget to address unresolved questions of inequality, racism, the crisis of ideology, leadership, and the overwhelming migration phenomenon. As the new epoch of massive migrations due to climate change, world conflict, or simply the consequence of a vampirized economy approaches, we are not equipped to deal with it.
The China-U.S. relationship, with its fight over world domination, is part of this story.
In an interview shortly after Joe Biden was elected the 46th President of the United States, I was asked to envision the possible impact the new president might have on the U.S. – China relationship. It was a tricky, heavyweight question, considering that the two countries have differing visions of the world. This potentially explosive situation became less intense after the rudder of America got into Biden’s hands. The new president is not a hawk. I personally think Biden is a blabber, but otherwise, a very decent man, the kind of person America needed after Trump. I was convinced that the 78-year-old veteran of the American political establishment would definitely restore dialog with China, America’s biggest adversary, and partner. How and when was hard to predict, as Trump’s defeat and departure from power filled the country with a relief that left no room for clear thinking. After the election on November 3, it did not matter who would replace Trump or what that person would do. What mattered was that Donald Trump was no longer doing it. Well, perhaps not entirely, because just before Trump was forced to leave the White House, he managed to do more damage while trying to hold on to the presidency. With the last-minute violent attempt to overturn the election results, he was ready to bring down the entire country. Trump instigated the deadly mob to storm the Capitol in an attempted coup, denying the presidential election results and consequently trampling the democratic order. He was hoping the mob would create enough disorder so that he, as a consequence, could block the inauguration and impose an authoritarian regime. It was a madman’s plan, but luckily, Trump’s desperate attempt to cling to power did not work.
In the months leading up to the inauguration, Trump created so much tension that he paralyzed the country. The White House was in lockdown, with the president depressed and avoiding the public. He needed all his time for plotting. During the last months of Trump’s presidency, the White House had no scheduled activity. All international relations were frozen. America had never been so isolated. The only active person in Trump’s entire administration was Mike Pompeo, who went on a traveling spree, visiting dubious American foreign partners. I am sorry to report that my country has a puppet government. The Slovenian prime minister first refused to recognize Biden’s election congratulating Trump on his self-proclaimed victory. Later on, he ordered his foreign minister to visit Washington to mark the beginning of strategic dialog between the U.S and Slovenia. All this in the middle of the world’s celebration that tyranny in the U.S. was over!
In the meantime, the race for world supremacy between China and America was suspended, and the two superpowers took some time to reassess their strategies. China wanted to study the new president. They knew Biden, but personality can change when you become president. There is no doubt that the two giants will have to sit down sooner or later and start talking about running or dividing the world. China is not yet the world’s biggest economic power, but when it becomes just that, let’s say in the next ten years, it will be too late for some of the discussions. One of the big questions is what will happen to the dollar, the world reserve currency when China becomes the most powerful economic nation in the world. Will all invested sides lead a peaceful negotiation about it, or will the race end with conflict? The change in the White House has greater importance than it seems. How and which direction will the course of history take? According to Americans, is a dialog between American exceptionalism, which makes the United States the most important country in the World, and Chinese nationalism, which has origins in humiliations of Chinese population during the Opium wars possible? I definitely don’t think so. Is it possible to take exceptionalism and nationalism off the table? Knowing both countries by direct experience, my guess is no. However, these are some of the issues that constitute the core of the two nations’ identities. It will make the passage of global power of utmost interest.
Perhaps now is the time to say a few more words about China’s future and the U.S. relationship that will lead to the final countdown. We now have some new elements. The new American president is not a visionary; he has never elaborated on any doctrine, allowing us to merely guess what his policy or strategy towards China would be. How may China respond?
Politics is not rocket science. It’s the art of what is possible. During his long political career, Biden has proved himself to be a strong pragmatist, suggesting he would not use Donald Trump’s aggressive policy against China. Besides, the new president is not wasting any of the political capital he gained by his clear-cut victory over Trump. Regardless of Trump’s obstacles, the transition of power was smooth and highly skillful, based on Biden’s experience in administration. Biden, who got the strong backing of the Democratic party, which once again passed over Bernie Sanders, incorporated a fair amount of Obama people into his administration. This allowed the federal administration, which got rusty during Trump’s reign, to jump back to life immediately. It was amazing to watch how the machine started running again.
As stated earlier, Biden did not need to introduce any immediate changes to the relationship with China. The U.S. was well-positioned and anchored where Trump left it: it now has all the necessary attention of the rising Asian dragon. Until 2016, the situation was different. American Wuwei (Taoist inexertion, inaction) China’s policy during the reign of Obama let Beijing freewheel and grow exponentially, while Washington fought expensive and useless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Soon after the change in the Oval Office, Beijing became aware of the ruthless new leader. Its first reaction was to flatter and seduce Trump, which comes naturally with Chinese customs and culture. Besides, Chinese leadership had an easy job to do since narcissism was Trump’s life potion. But Trump was also greedy, and Beijing soon started to fear Trump’s unpredictable and unstable character. Uncertainty and unpredictability are two elements that Chinese leaders, who grew up in Confucious tradition, fear the most. With Trump, China grew in awe of America again.
Biden, the experienced skipper, did not need to turn away from the wind blowing in his favor. Being a man of experience and a man of a certain age, president Biden preferred to focus on one problem at a time, following the plan he laid out during his campaign. China could wait. The absolute priority for Biden, and above all, for the country, was COVID-19. It was urgent to stop the carnage of the virus and the bad government created by Trump. The massive vaccination of the population and the huge Rescue Plan, both conceived by the Biden administration, are the small compensations for the extensive damage the pandemic inflicted on the country, which lost half a million lives and millions of jobs. 160 million Americans have been vaccinated to this day. With the Democratic majority in Congress, Biden was able to pass a $1.9 trillion financial rescue plan, money that is going directly to the unemployed, small enterprises, schools, and health institutions in the hopes of lifting the economy.
With his slow and dull manners, the old man from Delaware began to tackle those problems with the energy of a youngster on the day he moved into the White House. This relentless yet fragile-looking man continues to shock America with his energy and big swing politics. In less than two months since the 46th President took office, he is now proposing a third big plan that he hopes will make America walk again. For more than $2 trillion, the American Jobs Plan will create jobs, rebuild bridges, highways, speed up the railway system, enhance green energy production, invest in technology, research, broadband electric grid, and electric car industry. After many decades, the federal government no longer hesitates to put its hands on the national economy. The time is crucial, and Biden wants to do it fast. For four long years, Donald Trump promised heavy investments in infrastructure. He reopened a few old coal mines, but bridges continued to collapse during his reign. On the other hand, Sleepy Joe, as Trump used to call him, only 60 days into his presidency, started to propose his own New Deal. And more may come down the road. The infrastructure project may take a few months to become a reality; the opposition is not happy about its popularity and is planning obstacles in Congress. The Republicans oppose the government’s direct involvement in the economy and are ready to fight Biden’s proposal to finance infrastructure projects with taxes on the American rich and big corporations.
Biden thinks that the federal government should have a more decisive role in strategic fields like infrastructure, which is the economy’s hardware. It is my impression that Biden will confront China only after America starts to breathe again. These, at least, are the words Biden is conveying to us at the moment. With his focus on rebuilding the infrastructure first and tackling the software later, Biden almost sounds like an old-school Marxist. Of course, this is only an impression. From the times before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it was the vulgar Marxists who propagated infrastructure – labor, equipment, technology – as the base of a society that could later reflect on the superstructure. This widespread “theory of reflection,” introduced by Todor Pavlov, was a panacea that simpleminded, mechanistically-orientated Stalinist minders offered up as an alternative to capitalism. But Biden clearly does not read Marxist classics and does not share socialist countries’ ideals from the Cold War period. What is funny is that he got to this by watching the world and especially China.
Fast-developing China has been on everyone’s mind for at least two decades. Massive foreign investments and access to the western markets further accelerated China’s economy, to the point that Beijing now dominates some sectors of the world’s economy. I remember President Obama making speeches about competitive and economically efficient China pushing forward. Obama noticed the high level of Chinese investment into education, research, and infrastructure, and his administration was aware of the Chinese-detailed national priorities and interests. In January 2011, in his address to the nation, Obama was already hinting at what Biden is openly saying today. Obama urged Congress to lift their eyes and look over the fence, recalling the times of Sputnik that transformed America into a leader in the fields of science, technology, and economy. Ten years ago, Obama was already appealing to the whole nation to catch up to China, which already possessed the largest solar energy research center and the fastest computer globally. Chinese citizens were traveling in high-speed trains through state-of-the-art airports, Obama was saying. On that day, China formally became America’s number one rival because Obama opposed the governments which do not bother demolishing homes and houses if they are on the way to building a new high-speed rail. It was this and many other things China and is doing in its unstoppable desire to become the world’s number one power. And yet, the Republicans in Congress blocked President Obama from leading the country out of falling back. Obama’s rhetoric did not shake the egotism of corrupted Senators and Representatives. When Trump was elected in 2016, he played with the idea of using an authoritarian system to achieve similar results to the Chinese. Trump, as Yonder observed, appreciated the use of force on Tiananmen in 1989. The massacre killed many young lives and, with it, the thriving Chinese democracy. With tanks and blood on the streets, China introduced its successful and captivating model of state capitalism.
Some progressive thinkers had long ago indicated the burning dilemma of our times. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, as I pointed out earlier, observed in 2008 that the Chinese “used unencumbered authoritarian state power to control the social costs of the transition to capitalism. The weird combination of capitalism and Communist rule proved not to be a ridiculous paradox, but a blessing. China has developed so fast not despite authoritarian Communist rule, but because of it.
There is a further paradox at work here. What if the promised second stage, the democracy that follows the authoritarian vale of tears, never arrives? This, perhaps, is what is so unsettling about China today: the suspicion that its authoritarian capitalism is not merely a reminder of our past – of the process of capitalist accumulation which, in Europe, took place from the 16th to the 18th century – but a sign of our future? What if the combination of the Asian knout and the European stock market proves economically more efficient than liberal capitalism? What if democracy, as we understand it, is no longer the condition and motor of economic development, but an obstacle to it?”
When a couple of weeks ago, Chinese and Americans met in Alaska, the tables were separated. The high-level delegations from the Chinese Politburo, the White House, and two foreign ministries did something exceptional. The two sides started to accuse each other of not respecting human rights, Chinese in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, Americans with the segregation of Black Americans and other minorities. It was a joy to watch the spat because the Chinese and Americans were saying what they thought of each other for a moment. There were no consequences from this brief argument, as the meeting ended with much calmer talks behind closed doors. Perhaps just one thing remains evident: the two sides will now travel around the world looking for allies to bring to the negotiating table. A week after the Alaska meeting, Joe Biden held his first press conference. Compared to Trump’s cabaret performances, the Biden presser was a work of art. He was short and concise. But the most important thing he said was the dilemma of our time: it is about the race between two different society models — meaning that the future will be either an authoritarian one or a democracy. Biden’s goal is to revive the latter.
It took more than a decade for this idea to get from a university lecture to a politician’s desk. We do not know precisely how many curves that idea took. One of the shortcuts came from China, which strengthened control over society and its minorities in the last decade. In short, China continues to have economic success with ruthless control over its population. China sticks to the authoritarian model of development because it is more efficient. It took America four years to send away a madman that was destroying the last good American principles. How can this country step back in the old river and go ahead? To do so, America would surely have to renounce its exceptionalism and become a part of the world. Is that even possible?