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The Decline of an Empire and the Awakened Dragon

  •   13 min reads
The Decline of an Empire and the Awakened Dragon
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Historian Alfred McCoy Predicts the U.S. Empire Is Collapsing as China’s Power Grows

President Joe Biden’s virtual summit Monday with Chinese President Xi Jinping follows the two countries’ announcement just days earlier they will work together to confront the climate emergency, after Xi did not attend the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow. Tension has been mounting between the two superpowers, especially over Taiwan and Hong Kong, with some speculating that a new Cold War is developing. “The United States, in the immediate future, is faced with the possibility of fighting a war over Taiwan … that it would probably lose,” says Alfred McCoy, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in an extended interview about U.S.-China relations. “China is also working to break the U.S. geopolitical hold over the Eurasian landmass.” McCoy is a prolific author, and his newest book is out today, “To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping have spoken for three-and-a-half hours in a virtual summit Monday night. The meeting took place just days after the U.S. and China announced plans to work together to confront the climate emergency. Tension has been rising between the two nations, with some saying a new Cold War is developing. During the summit, Xi warned Biden supporting Taiwanese independence would be, quote, “playing with fire.” He also criticized the U.S. for building new alliances in the Pacific region to counter China’s rise. Xi said dividing the world into blocs would, quote, “inevitably bring disaster to the world.” Biden raised concerns about China’s human rights record and what the U.S. has described as “unfair trade and economic policies.” Both leaders spoke publicly as the summit began. This is Xi Jinping.

PRESIDENT XI JINPING: [translated] As the world’s two largest economies and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, China and the United States need to increase communications and cooperation. We should each run our domestic affairs well and at the same time shoulder our share of international responsibilities and work together for the most noble cause of world peace and development. This is the common aspiration of our people in China and the United States, as well as the people of all countries in the world. And it is also the common mission of the leaders of China and the United States. A sound Chinese-U.S. relationship is required for advancing our two countries’ respective development and for safeguarding a peaceful and stable international environment, including finding effective responses to global challenges such as climate change and the COVID pandemic.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is President Biden speaking from the Roosevelt Room at the White House at the start of the virtual summit with the Chinese president.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I’m happy we had found time to meet, and I look forward to a candid and forthright discussion like all the discussions we’ve had thus far. It seems to me our responsibility as leaders of China and the United States is to ensure that the competition between our countries does not veer into conflict, whether intended or unintended. And it seems to me we need to establish some commonsense guardrails, to be clear and honest where we disagree and work together where our interests intersect, especially on vital global issues like climate change. How our bilateral relationship evolves seems to me to — will have a profound impact not only on our countries but, quite frankly, the rest of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Both men were surrounded by each flag, of China and the United States.

To talk more about U.S.-China relations, we’re joined by Alfred McCoy, professor of history at University of Wisconsin-Madison. His latest book is out today, To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change. McCoy writes, “While Washington was spilling its blood and treasure into desert sands, Beijing had been investing much of its accumulated trade surplus in the integration of the 'world island' of Africa, Asia, and Europe into an economic powerhouse.”

Alfred McCoy, welcome back to Democracy Now! So, if you can talk about this summit? You wouldn’t quite understand the kind of tension that is between the United States and China right now, the world’s two largest economies. But if you can talk about the significance of this, and then how close we are to a cold war or hot war with China?

ALFRED MCCOY: The key issue in terms of immediate conflict between Washington and Beijing is Taiwan. As you said earlier, Amy, you know, President Xi of China said that the United States was playing with fire over Taiwan. By way of background, President Xi has committed himself, within China, to the reunification of Taiwan with China. He wants that to be a critical part of his legacy. And on the other side, President Biden stated, just last month in his town meeting, that the United States was committed to the defense of Taiwan. So here we have two leaders taking positions over Taiwan, which, if they’re fully pursued, will lead to conflict.

And this is another problem for the United States. The New York Times has reported that the Pentagon has war-gamed a war over Taiwan between the United States and China, and in the last 18 of these war games, the United States has lost 18 times. China has the world’s most sophisticated anti-ballistic missiles, the most sophisticated missile defense. Taiwan is extremely close to China. And if the United states moved aircraft carriers into the Taiwan Straits, like we did in the last conflict back in the 1990s, China could destroy those aircraft carriers. It could sink those aircraft carriers. So the United States, in the immediate future, is faced with the possibility of fighting a war over Taiwan. And if that conflict emerged, the United States would have to either retreat in defeat and see Taiwan conquered, or the United States would have to go to war and fight a war that it would probably lose.

And that’s one issue, but there’s also a deeper geopolitical struggle going on. Over the past five centuries, every world hegemon has done one thing the same way. Every world hegemon, from Portugal to Holland to Britain to the United States and now China, has dominated the Eurasian landmass, which today is home to 70% of the world’s population and productivity. And with the $4 trillion that China made by 2014 as a result of its open trade with the United States, China has invested $1.2 trillion in this massive infrastructure, laying down a steel grid of rail, road and gas pipeline, integrating the vast Eurasian landmass into a single market in which trade and power, as if by natural law, is going to flow towards Beijing.

China is also working to break the U.S. geopolitical hold over the Eurasian landmass. During the Cold War, we controlled what are known as the axial ends of Eurasia through the NATO alliance in Western Europe and four bilateral treaties, mutual defense treaties, with Japan, South Korea, Philippines and Australia. And from these two axial positions, we ringed Eurasia with bands of steel, aircraft carriers, jets, fighter-bombers to dominate Eurasia. And now China is punching through those circles of steel, breaking the U.S. geopolitical grip over Eurasia and, through the Belt and Road Initiative, consolidating its control.

Moreover, China has built 40 ports ringing the Eurasian landmass and the coast of Africa. So, the combination of this geopolitical circling of the coastlines of Eurasia, combined with this massive grid of infrastructure across the continent, is placing China in control, where it is going to dominate the Eurasian landmass. And that is the key to geopolitical power — has been for the last five centuries and will likely be for the rest of this century, as well.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Professor McCoy, I’d like to ask you a couple of things about that. First of all, we talk about China and the U.S. as if they are two separate economic spheres. Often they’re regarded that way, in competition. But hasn’t American capitalism depended for decades on the Chinese working class to produce its goods at low wage levels? So, in a growing rift between China and the U.S., which economy is likely to suffer the more profound upheaval?

ALFRED MCCOY: That’s the key difference — when people talk about a new Cold War, that’s the difference between the old Cold War and the new Cold War, as you absolutely correctly pointed out, OK? It is the economic interdependence between these two global superpowers. Since 2001, China has integrated its economy into the U.S. supply chain. The two economies are absolutely intertwined. They account, arguably, for as much as 40% of world trade together, OK? And there’s no way that this is going to be disaggregated. China is economically dependent on its exports to the United States. That’s the source of this vast amount of money. The $4 trillion all came primarily from U.S. trade. Simultaneously, the U.S. consumer economy is integrated with Chinese factories. So they’re economically interdependent. That’s the key difference.

On the other hand, the competition is also very, very real. And China is hoping to surpass the United States economically. By the end of this decade, China’s economy is going to be, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, the international accounting firm — going to be at least 50% larger than the U.S. economy. And that is going to give China enormous economic leverage. Moreover, by the end of this decade, I think that they will be able to survive an economic break with the United States, because, of course, they’re spreading that economic control around the globe. So they are superseding us. In terms of real value, what you can buy for a yuan or a dollar, China’s economy is already right now probably larger than the U.S. economy, but by the end of the decade it will be clearly larger, at least 50% larger.

And from that economic control, China will be able to expand its military in a number of military fields, like anti-ballistic missiles — they’re already ahead of us. They are building their Navy. They’re going to be working very hard to push us beyond what China calls the first island chain, which America calls the Pacific literal, that string of islands off the coast of Asia from Japan through Okinawa, Taiwan and all the way down to Australia. China wants to push us out of that. They want to push us back to the mid-Pacific. They want to split the Pacific Ocean down the middle. And China’s Navy is getting to the point where they might be able to do that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, but let me ask you, on this issue of the move toward hegemony, let’s say, of the Chinese nation and economy: Isn’t there a big difference in terms of the use of military force? The last time that I recall China was engaged in a shooting war was more than 40 years ago in Vietnam, or with Vietnam. But in that 40-year period, the United States has been involved in military — this is a declining economic power, has been involved in military interventions in Panama, Grenada, Libya, Afghanistan, two wars in Iraq, the Balkans, and not to mention all the military attacks and drone strikes in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan. This is all in the period from which China has been involved in no military interventions. China has all these ports, but it doesn’t have the worldwide military presence that would make it what would be called an aggressor nation, don’t you think?

ALFRED MCCOY: Well, first of all, your recounting of our recent history is absolutely accurate, of course. Two things about that. First of all, over the last 20 years, the bulk of our military operations, as we all know, has been focused in the greater Middle East. And the strategic logic of that was, in effect, securing the Middle Eastern oil, giving us kind of a permanent presence that will give us absolute access to Middle East oil. And we were doing that at the time when that oil was about to join cordwood and coal as superseded sources of fuel. So, we invested $8 trillion, $10 trillion in securing a commodity which was passing into the dustbin of history, OK? So it was a gross strategic miscalculation. When the history of the U.S. empire is written, in 2030, starting in 2030, when it’s over, OK, that will probably go down as one of the greatest strategic miscalculations in U.S. history.

And then, militarily, the point of naval expansion is not so much conflict. Most people don’t understand that. Most people think of naval history just in terms of wars. But what do navies do? The oceans are a global commons, and the way that a rising global hegemon secures oceans is through weaving an invisible line of constant patrols and dominance over those open spaces to claim it strategically and also, in terms of the minerals and values and fishing beneath the sea, to claim that, as well. So that’s what China is doing. China is weaving those lines of constant patrols by air and sea all the way to the first island chain, pushing us back, building seven island bases in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, pushing in the East China Sea. So, it’s part of an imperial game that’s been played for 500 years. And China is doing that quite successfully.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor McCoy, you recently wrote a piece for TomDispatch headlined “The Winner in Afghanistan: China.” Why do you believe that China has emerged stronger after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan? Talk about what geopolitical role Afghanistan plays and the difference in how the U.S. engaged in this forever war in Afghanistan and China’s relationship with it.

ALFRED MCCOY: Sure. In terms of President Xi’s strategy, which he announced in 2013, under the Belt and Road Initiative, what he was going to do and what he’s been doing is turning the vast Eurasian landmass into a single market linked by infrastructure. And if you will, the kind of hole in the donut — crude metaphor, apologies — the hole in the donut was Afghanistan, right? In terms of that network of massive natural gas pipelines going across the heart of Central Asia, the one connection that couldn’t be made was from Central Asia down to the energy-deficit areas of Pakistan and India. And that had to pass through Afghanistan.

And by ringing Afghanistan with the gas pipelines to the north, the China-Pakistan economic corridor to the east, and then, just this year, a massive economic agreement between China and Iran to build rail and gas pipelines, in effect, China surrounded Afghanistan with these lines of steel and was just waiting for Afghanistan to fall into its hands without a shot fired. And in July, a month before the Taliban took power, they sent a top-level delegation to China and met with China’s foreign minister. And they worked out an agreement that the Taliban would promote and allow Chinese investment.

And there’s another great prize in Afghanistan. Geologists estimate that there is about a billion dollars of rare earth minerals, critical for the construction of lithium batteries, which are going to fuel our transport and much of our reserve power as we switch from fossil fuels to solar power — that Afghanistan has a billion dollars of rare earth minerals that are very valuable to China, indeed to the whole international economy. And China will begin developing those in conjunction with the Taliban. So, in effect, China just sat back, surrounded Afghanistan with its geopolitical network and waited for it to fall right into its hands. And they didn’t pay a dollar. And we spent $8 trillion on Afghanistan and got nothing. It was a —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor McCoy — Professor McCoy, I wanted to ask you — in this conflict between China and the United States, these two countries are not alone, obviously. The Belt and Road Initiative is meant to win friendship and support to China from other parts of the world. I’m wondering if you would talk about countries like Russia and Iran, you mentioned, in terms of where they would stand in a developing conflict with the United States, and also about Latin America, which China has probably been the only major power to make significant inroads into a continent or an area of the world that used to be considered the U.S. backyard.

ALFRED MCCOY: Sure. First of all, on Latin America, China has an explicit strategy of resource development with Latin America, and its trade with our own southern neighbors is already larger than our own. The core of China’s strategy is what the father of modern geopolitics, a British geographer named Sir Halford Mackinder, called the “world island.” And he looked at the map in an article in 1904, over a hundred years ago, and he said, “Let’s look at the map critically.” And he said, “What we see is that there are three continents that are close together that form the world island: Europe, Asia and Africa.” Right? And he said, “Whoever dominates the pivot region, the heart in Central Asia, of this world island dominates the world.” And from his perspective, these three continents were the core of geopolitical power. And then there were some small outlying islands like Greenland and North America and South America.

So, part of China’s strategy has been — and, actually, this dates back all the way to the 1970s — to very seriously develop Africa and to bring Africa into the world economy through Chinese aid, development and trade links. And at the same time, during the Cold War that we were playing a 20-year game in Angola, OK, to disrupt and break the Marxist government there — which didn’t work in the end, and we were allied with apartheid South Africa — China was building the Tanzam Railroad, from Tanzania, ultimately, across the breadth of Africa, its first major international development aid project. And so, China, from that basis, all the way back to the 1970s, built relations with the liberation governments, which are now, of course, the main governments in the southern half of Africa.

And so, China has brought Africa very much into the international economy. China is by far and away the key investor in Africa. You know, we regard Africa as kind of a Band-Aid. And we have — and it’s very well motivated, of course, but, again, we see sort of Africa as a charity case. China, by contrast, sees Africa as a key to its emerging world power. It’s the home to nearly a third of humanity, enormous amount of natural resources, potential markets. So China is building a very close relationship with Africa as a part of this tricontinental world island strategy to dominate the core of humanity, the core of the modern economy.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Professor McCoy, I wanted to end in a different place, but there may be a connection, and that’s the insurrection of January 6. You write in another piece about how this reminded you of a coup you witnessed in the Philippines decades ago.

ALFRED MCCOY: Yeah. In 1986, I was in the Philippines, and one of my sources in the Philippine military tipped me off that the Marcos government — Marcos had fled into exile in Hawaii. And the great people power uprising of a million Filipinos in the streets of Manila had established a new democracy. But his loyalists —

AMY GOODMAN: We have 30 seconds.

ALFRED MCCOY: His loyalists met, and they seized the Manila Hotel, and they shook Philippine democracy to the point that there were a succession of major coups, armed coups, that really shook the Philippine democracy. And what I learned from this is that democracy is very fragile. And that January 6 uprising in Washington, D.C., was a coup, and it has shaken our democracy to the core. And we have to be very serious about reconstructing our democracy after that episode.

AMY GOODMAN: We will leave it there, but so many other issues to discuss. Alfred McCoy, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His newest book is out today. It’s called To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change.

Happy belated birthday to Kieran Krug-Meadows and Ishmael Daro! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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