What Eric Hobsbawm called the ‘short 20th century’ is supposed to have ended in 1989 with the United States winning the Cold War. Yet today America faces a powerful and assertive China, a one-party state with an official ideology it calls 21st-century Marxism, which is busy building a powerful military on the back of an economy set to become the world’s biggest in the foreseeable future. This development has shaken the assumptions that have underpinned economic and national security decision-making in Washington for the last thirty years.
The change in circumstances has been dramatic. In 2001, after years of painful negotiation, the US managed China’s accession to the recently established World Trade Organisation, which sets the world’s trading rules. With this, the WTO became a truly global organisation, incorporating the vast majority of the world’s population. The hope, as expressed by President Bush’s trade representative Bob Zoellick, was that China would become a responsible stakeholder in the global system. Twenty years later, it is the second largest national economy in the world. The US and China are deeply interconnected through trade and investment. Yet they are locked in a conflict which, according to President Trump, may yet result in a complete ‘uncoupling’ of the two economies. The Trump administration, meanwhile, is doing its best to sabotage the WTO, in large part because it has failed to tame China’s rise.
The Covid-19 crisis has pushed into the background the smouldering trade war between the US and China, but it has not prevented their economic rivalry morphing into a dramatic grand strategic stand-off. The financial hub of Hong Kong has become a political battleground; the US has launched an all-out campaign against Huawei, China’s leading tech firm; and both sides have announced sanctions against senior politicians. The movement of people between the two countries, previously in the millions, has reduced to a trickle. Whether it will resume when the Covid-19 crisis passes is anyone’s guess. What’s more, the conflict is spreading to America’s allies, including Australia, Canada, France and the UK.
It is hard to escape the impression that we have reached a point of historic rupture, and that is the feeling conveyed by this recent crop of books on Sino-American tensions. Not only do they offer a chronicle of mounting tension but, though some of them were completed just a few months ago, they seem to speak from a world we have lost. The questions they ask are still urgent, but in our current situation they are being reframed with each passing day.