The Duck of Minerva

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Neoliberals, Anti-Imperialists, and the China Question

September 7, 2021

Does China’s more ambitious foreign policy and bid for “national rejuvenation” come at America’s expense? It’s a question where some neoliberals and some on the anti-imperialist left converge — in opposition to Washington conventional wisdom.

Most of the D.C. Establishment now takes for granted that, obviously, China seeks to displace the United States, in Asia and the world. The Sinologist community is divided on the question.

The neoliberal view of China that prevailed from roughly the Tiananmen Square massacre to the 2008 Great Recession sought to make China a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system. Bush-era appointee Robert Zoellick popularized that phrase in 2005, but it aptly captures an essential goal in China policy during the George H.W. Bush, Clinton, W. Bush, and early Obama presidencies. It also lingers in aspects of President Biden’s China policy.

Most IR scholars would probably eschew calling this neoliberalism in favor of neoliberal institutionalism + economic interdependence, but it’s a simple premise regardless whether you acknowledge the ideology: embed China’s rise within a globalization that disproportionately benefited Washington, Wall Street, and Silicon Valley. How? By selling U.S. debt instruments to China at scale, courting Chinese foreign direct investment, centering China in transnational production networks that delivered cheap goods to U.S. consumers, and coordinating economic and fiscal policies with China at senior levels. Do those things and a few others and China’s growth strengthens the entire system of global capital. It becomes American neoliberalism’s greatest success.

In this way, talk of win-win wasn’t just Communist Party of China (CCP) sophistry; it was to some extent American strategy. Hank Paulson said it best: “the inextricable interdependence of China’s growth and that of the global economy…presents the best means of influencing China’s emergence as a global power and encouraging its integration into the international system.”

Yet, if you look at this neoliberal history just slightly differently, you get the same story but from a more critical vantage point. Probably the best, most serious leftist analysis of the political economy of American hegemony, The Making of Global Capitalism, by Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, argued among other things that China’s ascendance was happening within American “empire.” Chinese global power was not a challenge to the United States because U.S. liberal hegemony was exercised through globalization. Chinese growth from globalization, in turn, reinforced both its productive and pernicious effects.

China’s rise, in other words, was both underwritten and thoroughly co-opted by U.S. political-economic dominance. It was an observation the authors lamented, one critical of China’s choices and American informal empire, but one wholly congruent with the neoliberal interpretation of events.

At the time it was written, this view from the left was not untrue. Released in 2012, a good deal of its analysis explains the Great Recession in a similar way to what Adam Tooze depicted in Crashed, and Panitch and Gindin beat Tooze to publication by several years. The authors also do a masterful job of showing that if only experts in the 1980s grasped how global economic power was actually functioning, they would’ve understood that Japan’s economic rise was not a challenge to U.S. economic hegemony but in fact evidence of it (I tell a similar story in a forthcoming book that you’ll be hearing more about in the coming months). There would’ve been no basis, other than outright racism, for all the Reagan-era Yellow Peril fear mongering about Japan. The Reagan administration wouldn’t have felt the need to bully its ally repeatedly. And I wouldn’t have been forced to read Rising Sun in high school.

But in crucial ways, The Making of Global Capitalism also reflects the moment in which it was written. Its greatest weakness, and a major reason I think it and the neoliberals are probably wrong about China, is its periodization. In 2012, the U.S. Treasury and the Federal Reserve had been taking drastic action for several years running to not only bail out banks and flagging industries; they were also providing crucial liquidity support to other governments, in coordination with China, which was throwing around money left and right, domestically and across Asia, as economic stimulus. As Dan Drezner proclaimed, “The System Worked,” and China’s response to the fiscal crisis was independently pursued yet had the effect of reinforcing the whole thing.

Yet that perspective did not foresee, and in some cases simply overlooked, many things that undermined it. Like the deep insecurity in the CCP that its own systemic corruption had led to CIA infiltration at the highest levels (which it discovered in 2010). Or the explicitly anti-liberal power consolidation of Xi Jinping, which was facilitated partly by the need to check internal corruption, because it threatened the regime. Or the need for the CCP to gird itself against American economic coercion, which circa 2012 seemed unimaginable. Or that worsening domestic inequality in China would give both license and need for stronger appeals to ethnonationalism, and subsequently greater assertiveness in territorial disputes starting as early as 2008. Or that perceptions of American decline following the 2008 financial crash would embolden China to lobby the world to abandon the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency. It’s really hard to square all this with a claim that China does not seek to displace the United States.

In fairness, there’s a strong case to be made that the United States is no longer the center of international order, despite its impressive advantages, and China today probably wields greater international influence, for good and ill, than it has at any point since the Deng Xiaoping era.

But China today is not Japan in the 1980s. If there are arguments to be made in favor of cooperation with China, or to justify not sweating China’s accumulation of power, they’re probably best made on grounds other than the somewhat trans-partisan claim that China’s challenge is a boon for the system America built.

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Van Jackson is a professor of international relations at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, and a think tanker at lots of places around the world: a distinguished fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada; an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security; a senior associate fellow at the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Nonproliferation & Disarmament (APLN); and the defence & strategy fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies in New Zealand. He also hosts The Un-Diplomatic Podcast.