Obama Plays the China Card

Saber-rattling for the sake of Big Labor and Big Oil

by , November 18, 2011

Declaring the US is "here to stay," President Obama made his Asian trip the occasion for a renewed assertion of US hegemony in the region, announcing a new agreement with Australia that would see thousands of US marines stationed at a base in Australia. Dispelling any doubt about who or what this garrison is meant to guard against, the One declared China must "play by the rules." 

Who sets those rules? Washington does, of course. Which raises the question: what are the rules, anyway?

Actually, there’s only one: Washington is always right — even when it’s wrong, and you may apply it in any situation, no matter the specifics. 

Take, for example, the charge recently leveled by a report from the "US-China Economic and Security Commission" —  a congressional "advisory" body set up in 2000 under pressure from labor unions and neoconservative hawks — that China is "manipulating" its currency in order to gain exports at our expense. The reality, however, is that the US government is manipulating the dollar, relentlessly driving it downward in order to be able to pay back pennies for every dollar of America’s astronomical national debt, currently at $15 trillion and rising. That these policies are destroying trillions in reserves and savings, and will eventually cause economic chaos both here and internationally, hasn’t stopped US policymakers from pursuing their suicidal course in the name of "creating jobs" by driving export sales. The real currency manipulators aren’t in Beijing, they’re in Washington.

The new China-bashing policy is being unveiled at a time when President Obama finds his political position increasingly undermined by bad economic conditions at home — and here is the explanation for this new turn in American foreign policy. Obama must placate the virulently anti-Chinese labor unions, who prefer to blame "cheap labor" overseas rather than the anti-business policies favored by Washington, for the hollowing out of American industry.

Flush with cash, the Chinese are almost single-handedly buying up US Treasuries and carrying our incredible debt burden on their shoulders. Does the US really want to engage in a trade war, as some Democratic politicians are calling for, with the leaders of a country that holds our economic fate in their hands? What would happen if Beijing decided to stop buying that debt? We would see a world-wide run not only on US Treasuries but on all sovereign funds: the result would be global economic chaos.

Washington is convinced Beijing is locked in to a policy of subservience by the probable consequences of such a turn of events, which would hit China hard. Chinese leaders are restrained, they believe, because a condition of "mutual assured destruction" prevails — but I wouldn’t be so sure about that. 

If Uncle Sam continues to demonstratively prod and tease the Chinese tiger, grandstanding for the benefit of a domestic audience, he may find himself missing more than a couple of digits before the show is over. Chinese nationalism is such a powerful force that even the Chinese Communist Party lives in dread of it. That’s because Chinese public opinion is far less inclined to tolerate US bullying than the ruling elite. As a recent report on the growing influence of non-state actors in the conduct of China’s foreign policy puts it

"Nationalist sentiment is widespread and criticism of Chinese leaders for bowing to international demands is incessant on the Internet. While most foreign policy decisions are made with little regard to public opinion, Chinese officials are aware that dissatisfaction can give rise to questioning of the Party’s ability to govern. Hence, leaders’ actions can be constrained in international crises, particularly when the United States or Japan are involved." 

China-wide demonstrations against perceived US interference in Tibet, and protests over Japan’s claims to disputed islands, were carefully controlled and even downplayed by the Chinese government; from the elite’s perspective, nationalism is a double-edged sword, one that could just as easily be wielded against them as against "foreign devils." That’s one reason why it is exceedingly stupid for the US to intervene in the myriad border disputes between China and its neighbors, especially those regarding the South China Sea. Even if the Chinese leaders agreed to all the demands put forward by the US and its regional allies, they would face repercussions at home that could conceivably destabilize the regime — a development that would surely put a bit of a damper on sales of US Treasuries. Mutual assured destruction is a two-way street.

Chinese nationalism may be on the rise, but China’s military spending is one seventh the size of US "defense" outlays, and — in spite of Israeli sales of US secrets to Beijing — the military technology gap between the two countries is lopsided in America’s favor.

Reasserting America’s role as a "Pacific power," and vowing to "project power and deter threats to peace" in the region, President Obama is rattling the saber in China’s direction for purely domestic political reasons. The labor unions at the core of his constituency traditionally hate China and all things Chinese: it’s a sentiment that dates back to the latter part of the nineteenth century, when labor agitation against Chinese "coolie" labor resulted in lynch mobs prowling the streets of San Francisco and the rise of the anti-Chinese "Workingman’s Party." Big Labor would love to slam tariffs on Chinese goods: after all, Chinese workers are guilty of the crime of providing Americans with reasonably-priced products that everyone wants, and so must be punished. In addition, the neoconservatives — always in the market for a new enemy, and a new reason to increase military spending — have jumped on board the anti-China bandwagon. 

In short, here is an issue on which both Democrats and Republicans can agree, albeit each for their own reasons, a political reality that heightens the danger of a US-China conflict. 

Finally, who can doubt that racism plays an enormous part in the current China-bashing campaign? There is much irony in this: the President’s supporters have a long history of deploying ethnicity as a political-ideological weapon, accusing administration opponents of "racism" at the drop of a hat. Yet they don’t hesitate to raise the specter of the Yellow Peril threatening our "leading role" in the Pacific.

The US is utilizing the regional summit to confront the Chinese, insisting the matter of the South China Sea be put on the agenda. Yet this brusque tactic is meeting with a decidedly cold reception from the smaller Southeast Asian nations. This resentment was pointedly expressed by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, who noted the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had adopted guidelines for a code of maritime conduct signed by China earlier in the year: 

"ASEAN now has a clear scenario and approach. So ASEAN countries will not let the Southeast Asia region become a competition arena for countries who consider themselves as big powers, whoever or whenever they maybe. We have an interest to make a clear code of conduct [for the South China Sea] so that concerns from non-Southeast Asian countries can be reflected based on the interest of ASEAN countries’ national interest." 

Our interest in the South China Sea is hard to understand, at least on the face of it. That the US should play a "leadership role" in determining who has valid claim to these waters makes about as much sense as China playing a similar role in regulating the waters of the Caribbean. Imagine the response on the American street if the Chinese decided they were going to intervene in a dispute over the Gulf of Mexico: the Chinese street is bound to have a similar reaction if we intervene in the South China Sea. 

Unleashing the unpredictable fury of Chinese nationalism would not result in a favorable outcome for the US, but pressure from Big Oil as well as Big Labor may prevail over common sense. The former are very interested in the large deposits of oil that have been found in the disputed waters, and these interests would have much more clout with, say, the government of the Philippines, or their old friend the Sultan of Brunei, than they would with the dour bureaucrats of Beijing.

The propaganda war against China has taken a new tack, lately, one previously reserved for the Russians: the Chinese are routinely blamed for intrusions into US government computers, and other sensitive installations. The charge is that they are massively stealing unspecified data, and even interfering with US satellites. These reports, however, are long on accusations but short on evidence: as Air Force General Robert Kehler, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, told reporters: "What I have seen is inconclusive." 

The General misses the point: when you’re fighting a propaganda war, it isn’t necessary to make a direct hit, or even get close to the target. One simply has to open fire, and the resulting noise is in itself a victory. After all, who among the general public has the time or inclination to gather and weigh all the evidence? Instead of undertaking such a wearisome task, they’ll simply conclude there has to be something to the charges, or why else would there be such a brouhaha.

That wearisome task is our task, here at Antiwar.com

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