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What's behind the new cold war between Washington and Beijing?

DEADLY clashes between Chinese and Indian troops in the Himalayas are a reminder of the real-world consequences of the “new cold war” between Washington and Beijing.

As in the original cold war, the risk of direct conflict between the two protagonists is real, but fighting is likely to begin in proxy conflicts.

The Sino-Indian border dispute is not new. Its origins go back to several contradictory lines of control drawn up by the British empire between the 1860s and 1890s, and it famously sparked a brief war in 1962. 

It is only a potential cause of war again because international relations are increasingly unstable. In 1962, neither China nor India was militarily aligned with the US, but that is not the case now. 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s attack on China as a “rogue actor” which he naturally blames for the clashes comes after years in which Narendra Modi’s India has “been reduced to a subordinate ally of the United States,” as Communist Party of India-Marxist general secretary Sitaram Yechury told the Morning Star last year.

He added presciently: “We are increasingly a part of the US project of containing China, our biggest and most powerful neighbour. It’s not in our interests.” 

These trends are reflected in the military agreements signed by Modi and US President Donald Trump in February, as well as the new military partnership struck between India and US ally Australia earlier this month.

And Pompeo’s attack is one of many. Since the start of the coronavirus crisis, Washington’s rhetoric on Beijing has become increasingly hysterical. 

Last Friday in a Wall Street Journal interview Trump claimed that China might have encouraged the virus’s spread as a way to destabilise rival economies. 

Previously, as Stop the War Coalition’s Chris Nineham has written, Trump has declared China’s behaviour over coronavirus “worse than Pearl Harbour … worse than the World Trade Centre. There has never been an attack like this,” likening Covid-19’s spread around the world to a Chinese weapon. 

US officials have repeatedly given credence to claims that the virus may have been engineered in a Chinese laboratory, claims an internal memo of the German Defence Ministry described as “an attempt to distract from [Trump’s] own mistakes and direct Americans’ anger at China.” 

So determined has Washington been to blame China for the spread of the virus — despite China having shared the newly sequenced genome of the virus on January 12, and having been warning the US about the disease since January 3 — that in March it even scuppered a joint statement by the G7 on the pandemic simply because the other countries were not prepared to refer to Covid-19 as “the Wuhan virus.”

This “toys out of the pram” approach to international relations later resulted in the US withdrawing from the World Health Organisation (WHO) itself because the body refused to go along with the “blame China” narrative.

The US’s behaviour since the pandemic struck does not compare well with China’s, either internally or internationally. 

The US leads the world in the number of infections and deaths, having — like Britain — ignored warnings from China and the WHO for over two months before taking any mitigating action. 

It has not shown any inclination to extend international co-operation to tackle the virus. 

Quite the opposite: Germany has confirmed that Trump tried to buy a German pharmaceutical company working on a vaccine in order to move it to the US and provide its treatment “for the US only.”

The US has actively blocked medical aid from reaching Cuba and tightened sanctions on Venezuela and Iran despite the known impact on both countries’ healthcare systems.

With Britain, it was the only country at the World Health Assembly to vote against a resolution pooling all Covid-19 treatment patents so they would be a globally available resource.

And even allies have distanced themselves from its decision to walk out of the WHO, pulling co-operation and funding from the only global healthcare organisation that exists at the height of a truly global pandemic.

China, by contrast, was quick to share what it learned about the new virus as it spread from Wuhan over the winter, won praise from the WHO for the speed and efficiency of its lockdown that kept deaths below 5,000 and supplied medical assistance, including the despatch of medical workers, to numerous other countries once it began to spread. 

As the virus began to hit Europe in earnest in March, Italy’s ambassador to the EU Maurizio Massari pointedly remarked that no fellow EU country had responded to Rome’s appeals for help: “Only China responded bilaterally.” 

China’s extensive aid shipments were depicted as an ominous “wide-reaching propaganda effort” aimed at increasing “leverage” over other countries by liberal outlets like the US magazine Foreign Policy. We would have cause to be thankful if US “leverage” was applied in the same way.

An assessment of China’s and the US’s actions towards other countries is important because a huge propaganda effort will be made to ensure Britain files obediently into line behind Washington in the new “cold war.”

And the first falsehood pushed by the new cold warriors will be over who is responsible for deteriorating Sino-US relations.

At the weekend Timothy Garton-Ash stated bluntly in the Guardian: “The primary cause of this new cold war is the turn taken by the Chinese Communist Party leadership under Xi Jinping since 2012: more oppressive at home, more aggressive abroad.” 

That is hard to reconcile with the facts: it is the US which has repeatedly slapped tariffs on China. It is the Trump administration, not Beijing, which has torn up international agreements — over Iranian nuclear development, strategic arms limitation treaties and open skies, and via a preposterous “peace plan” for the Middle East that tramples on Palestinian rights.

It is Washington that has walked out of international agencies including Unicef, the WHO and the UN Human Rights Council, savaging them for refusing to conform to US foreign policy.

Combine that with Trump’s crackdown on anti-racist protests across the United States and it is the White House that is looking “more oppressive at home, more aggressive abroad.”

As Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs told the BBC at the weekend, “the US is a force for division, not for co-operation. It’s a force for trying to create a new cold war with China.”

Trump may be a destabilising presence, but as Nineham notes, “agitation against China is bipartisan” in the US, with the Democrats accusing the president of being “soft on China.”

John Bolton’s claim in his new book that Trump sought help winning elections from the Chinese will no doubt spark the kind of delusional focus on supposed foreign puppet-masters previously applied to Russia by Democrats unable to accept that they lost an election because of their own political inadequacies. 

The same is unfortunately true here, with the new Labour leadership urging the government to take a more aggressive stance against China over the status of Hong Kong.

But while Hong Kong, like Ladakh, Xinjiang, the Diaoyu islands or any number of other bones of contention may be an excuse, the cause of the US’s hostility is based on traditional economic rivalry. 

China is not only an increasingly significant rival to the US in terms of overall economic size, its technological development is beginning to outstrip that of the US in certain fields, allowing it to lay claim to previously secure export markets. 

This is the cause of the US’s hostility to the Made in China 2020 initiative — and if Garton-Ash has a point at all about a shift in policy under Xi Jinping, it is this stated commitment to creating Chinese world leaders in high-tech fields which has most enraged the US. 

This is at the root of the global campaign to sabotage the Huawei corporation and punish countries which continue to work with it.

There is an irony to the US’s malicious lie about China seeking to destabilise other economies with coronavirus: from the beginning of this rivalry, it has been the US which has sought to obstruct Chinese development, and the US, from Venezuela to Iran, that regularly tries to destabilise the economies of its perceived enemies.

On the 75th anniversary of VE Day this year, Communist Party veteran David Grove recalled that the 1945 Labour government faced a choice

“Not between Washington and Moscow, as the issue is sometimes misleadingly framed — but between being a very junior partner in the US imperialist project, or working with both the US and USSR, through the United Nations…”

For Garton-Ash, the question as to whether Britain should engage in the new cold war as a “very junior partner in the US imperialist project” does not even arise. His article is solely concerned with how the West goes about winning it.

All the signs are that Britain’s political elite, both Tory and Labour, backs the new cold war against China.

Stopping it from doing so should be a cause for the whole left, since the worse relations are the more likely conflicts will break out and the greater the risk of a catastrophic general war.

John Pilger’s 2016 film The Coming War on China highlighted the risk of conflict being precipitated by China’s nervousness of the huge encirclement of US military bases and enormous naval presence in the Pacific, currently being patrolled by three US navy carrier groups, the largest number in years.

It also spoke of “the other superpower” — the peace movements the world over, from Britain and the US to Korea and Japan, that have the potential to prevent conflict.

Britain’s peace movement must be strong enough to do its bit for that “other superpower.” It needs backing from across the labour movement in resisting imperialist aggression by our government and in seeing through the excuses that are used to inflame tensions with Beijing.

A huge number of lives could depend on it.

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