This is part 2 of this series of articles on the New Cold War. (Link to Article Part 1) Kalim Siddiqui concludes his analysis of the global geopolitical situation, with reference in particular to the US, China, and Russia, comparing and contrasting it with the Cold War period of the late twentieth century.
IV. Economic and Trade Rivalry
US post-war military strategy was based on the view that a rise in military expenditure would have more than proportionate effects on growth rates, jobs, consumption, and investments, i.e., the well-known Keynesian multiplier effect. A National Bureau of Economic Research study (2019) found that defence spending of US$1 billion raised the economy by US$1.5 billion.
The US has always maintained superiority in defence to enhance its industrial, financial, and technological power. Cypher notes, “to conserve global ‘primacy’, US grand strategy requires a ‘core commitment’ to (1) maintenance and enhancement of US military power projection capabilities; (2) preservation and expansion of the structural dominance of the laissez-faire economic ‘order’; and (3) protection and revision of the post-war global institutional configuration” (Cypher, 2016: 800).
But compared to the earlier Cold War, in the new Cold War, we find that, while the US is very critical of the ideas of the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese official media refrains from denouncing American values. China and the US, unlike the former Soviet Union, have engaged deeply in trade, investment, the supply chain of vital products, and student exchanges. This is the reason that the new Cold War is quite different and will involve tremendous economic and social costs for both sides. We do not see any direct military confrontation between the countries and have no proxy war. There is a potential flashpoint in the South China Sea.
Deng Xiaopeng in 1992 visited the southern region of China and extended his full support to the “market reforms” in China. Soon after, President Clinton granted China most-favoured-nation treatment and said that his administration would continue to support pro-market reforms in China. He said that China was a huge market and it was very important for US companies to engage with China. As Lixin writes, “The engagement strategy includes three aspects. First, support for China’s Reform and Opening-up and modernisation, a relaxation of technology transfers to China, granting China permanent most-favoured-nation status and encouraging American businessmen to invest in China. Second is the promotion of extensive exchanges and cooperation in culture, education, academics, and science between the two countries, and the promotion of the spread of Western values in China. Third, support for and acceptance of China’s accession to the World Trade Organisation and other international organisations and increasing China’s voting rights in the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other international institutions” (Lixin, 2021:8).
China’s unprecedented opening of its markets through trade and investment, while keeping its national strategic industries firmly under the public sector, in the presence of the massive availability of cheap labour, made China the most important destination of the global supply chain after the country joined the WTO. By investing in China, MNCs attained economies of scale and became internationally competitive in terms of reducing costs and thus raising returns (Stiglitz, 2015).
However, indigenous manufacturing was generally located at the low end of the value chain and hence operated with low profit margins and faced a few challenges in acquiring and upgrading advanced technologies. From 2006 onwards, the Chinese government introduced a new policy to facilitate indigenous innovation with the target to achieve increased high-tech innovation by 2022. The policy targeted mainly unexploited areas such as energy, environment, high-tech manufacturing, and services.
For more than three decades, China’s labour productivity rose faster than wages in the manufacturing sector and thus rates of profits were much higher than in the US. China produces more goods than the US used to produce. And we find that the rapid development of communication technology and the fact that China can compete with the US have alarmed US leaders.
The rapid rise of high-tech Chinese companies poses a major challenge to the US manufacturing sector and that was the reason that then-President Obama put forward the slogan “Bringing manufacturing back to America”. The Trump administration took it forward but forgot to see that implementing such a policy is not an easy task. The US does not have a comparative advantage in the manufacturing sector; one reason could be that US wages are higher compared to China. The other reason is the US financial sector, which is built on various forms of derivatives and its size has grown enormously since, in the mid-1990s, it acquired financial freedom in the name of efficiency and high returns, while China’s financial sector is strictly government-controlled and regulated (Yao, 2021).
Since the 2008 global financial crisis, China has narrowed its income and technological gaps with the US, and this is seen as a threat to the US that China is challenging US technological and economic supremacy. China’s catch-up with the US was staggering. For instance, in 2008, China’s GDP was only 31.2 per cent of the US GDP but, 12 years later, the number has more than doubled. In 2008, there were only 35 Chinese companies in the Fortune Global 500 list of the world’s largest companies based on revenues, which was far below the number of US companies. But in 2021, China had 124 companies in the Fortune List, which was more than the US. Such development has given Chinese leaders more confidence in their economic policy. Academics also in recent years began debating China’s success and it was said that the dramatic rise of China was due to its authoritarian government policy with active state involvement in the economy, i.e., state capitalism (Li, 2020).
In the past, virtually all the now-advanced economies had adopted interventionist industrial policies to promote domestic industries, exports, and investments. They also supported industrialisation in their take-off stage of economic development and structural change. It means that industrialisation must precede liberalisation. But to say that China did the opposite by liberalising its economy before industrialisation from the mid-1980s onwards is incorrect.
In December 2017, the Trump administration unveiled the US National Security Strategy Report, which proposed that the US was entering into a new era of power competition. The report portrayed China as a “strategic competitor” that wants to shape a world antithetical to US values and interests. US elites were alarmed by China’s fast upgrading of its advancements in the telecommunications sector. The US ban on Chinese access to high-tech would affect innovation because it needs markets to meet the costs. China is the largest market for US products and cutting off US companies from the Chinese markets would adversely affect their global expansion and would ultimately slow down their innovation.
According to statistics, the total volume of services trade between the US and China was US$120 billion in 2017 and the volume of goods trade in 2018 reached US$633.5 billion. By December 2018, the US’s total investment reached US$85.2 billion in China. And in 2017, the number of Chinese students studying in US higher academic institutions was more than 350,000, which then accounted for nearly 33 per cent of the total number of international students in the US. In 2019, five million people travelled between the two countries.
In July 2018, President Trump imposed tariffs on several goods imported from China, which continued after Biden became president. Due to this rising trade conflict, imports from China to the US have been reduced (see figures 2 and 3). Imports from China declined further from March 2020 as global trade collapsed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and have since then recovered gradually. Only recently, US imports from China have returned to pre-trade-war levels, while imports from the rest of the world are above the pre-war level. China is now the source of only 18 per cent of total US goods imports, down from 22 per cent at the onset of the trade war. In contrast to this, at present, US imports from the rest of the world have risen to 38 per cent compared to pre-trade-war levels and are even above that level (blue line). With a few exceptions, these imports were not hit with new US tariffs.
In fact, President Trump under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 imposed a tariff of 25 per cent on products of nearly US$34 billion of US imports from China in July 2018. China retaliated, the trade war continued, and the US imposed 10 per cent tariffs on an additional US$200 billion of imports in September 2018, increasing the rate of those duties to 25 per cent in June 2019.
Moreover, the goods that were affected by 25 per cent tariffs by the US were largely intermediate inputs and capital equipment which, because they were used by firms to make other consumer goods or to provide services, were less visible to consumers. Imports of some products were lower, despite rising demand in the US during the pandemic, contributing to shortages, and costs for firms using these imported inputs rose sharply. As a result, such companies were forced to either continue importing from China even with the tariff or find new suppliers from other countries. Other examples, such as IT hardware and electronics, were in higher demand during the COVID-19 lockdown, i.e. modems, routers, network servers, smart watches, and wireless headphones. In fact, US imports from China of such goods declined from 62 per cent after the imposition of 25 per cent tariffs. In contrast, US imports from the rest of the world are now 60 per cent higher. China’s share of US imports of IT hardware and consumer electronics has declined from 38 per cent to 13 per cent.
Other important products imported were vehicle parts from China, which was seen by the US car industry as a threat. Imports from China and the rest of the world fell sharply during COVID-19, as the car industry in the US stopped production due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After the end of the pandemic, US imports from the rest of the world have recovered and at present it is 20 per cent higher, but imports from China due to the tariffs have only just returned to pre-trade-war levels. However, China’s share of US vehicle parts imports has only dropped from 15 per cent to 13 per cent.
The US sees China under President Xi Jinping as becoming more assertive and stronger, both economically and militarily, with its boosting economy not even deterred by the recent adverse impact of COVID-19 and backing its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (Siddiqui, 2019b). It seems that any return to the pre-2017 world of “strategic engagement” with China is unlikely.
The Chinese economic policy of advancing its technological capability, particularly “Made in China 25”, is certainly seen by the US as direct competition with the US global companies in the services and knowledge sectors. This Chinese attempt is taken as competition rather than complementary and seems to be a threat to US global technological hegemony. Thus, new development has created a rift between the US and China since 2018.
China’s economic rise is underlined by its growth model, which is perceived to have the desire to re-divide the world and expand its sphere of influence. Therefore, it is predicted that the US and China will continue to be strategic rivals, shaped by external and internal forces (see figures 4 and 5). The world has entered a new age of intra-core rivalry and US and Chinese competition will shape the trajectory of the capitalist world order for decades to come.
In 2010, China began to show its financial ambitions by using the Renminbi in international transactions and as a part of projecting the Renminbi as a global currency. The reason for China’s global financial desire was due to the fact that its economic share of global GDP had almost quintupled from 4 per cent to 18 per cent, and its share of global trade had quadrupled to 15 per cent in the last two decades. In recent human history, no other economy in the world has grown so fast and in such a sustained way for so many years. Moreover, China’s stock market has been performing well compared to other developed economies, and the Renminbi raised its share of global central bank reserves to 3 per cent in 2021, up from 1 per cent in 2016 (Sharma, 2022).
During the past decade, China has printed a lot of money to stimulate growth. But capital control has been imposed to prevent capital flight and this may hinder capital from fleeing the country when given the chance. Sharma notes, “Since 2015, the Renminbi share of payments through the Swift network for international bank transactions has fallen by a fifth, from an already negligible level under 3 per cent. A widely followed index that ranks 165 nations by capital account openness puts China at 106th… While Chinese investors are restricted from investing abroad, foreigners are scared away from China by erratic government attempts to control the market. That helps explain why unlike in other nations, stocks in China do not rise and fall with economic growth” (Sharma, 2022).
In fact, at present in China, foreign companies own only 5 per cent of stocks, while nearly 28 per cent in other emerging markets, and about 3 per cent of bonds in China, compared to around 20 per cent in other developing nations (Sharma, 2022). However, nearly 90 per cent of global foreign exchange transactions take place in US dollars, and only 5 per cent are in Renminbi.
During the Japanese economic boom of the 1980s, the country emerged as both a financial and economic power. The Japanese yen and stocks reflected that strength and Tokyo emerged as a global financial centre. However, at present, the Chinese Renminbi is not considered by investors a safe destination. China is still a long way from becoming a financial superpower.
US President Joe Biden, in a joint speech to the US Congress, declared that the US is in competition with China “to win the 21st century”, as he put it. However, the US government under Biden, and of course before, under Trump, has imposed several rounds of sanctions on Russia and China. So, while on the one hand, he is continuing the nationalistic trade policies of the Trump administration, Biden is escalating the new Cold War against Russia and China, in the belief that the US can impose sanctions and isolate them, which will lead to the fall of their governments (Kovalik, 2017).
The US attempted to isolate Russia, so that it can recapture the resources and resume the sale of Russia’s national resources and public utilities to the US-based MNCs. This is unlikely to be repeated. The actual effect of the sanctions on Russia and China has been to drive them together, rather than isolate them.
The question in this is, what about Europe? In the last few weeks, there has been a lot of discussion about cutting Russia off from the SWIFT bank clearing system, and of other sanctions against Russia. Russia has already worked with China to develop its own alternative to the SWIFT banking clearing system. So Russian domestic payments are not going to be that disrupted, after the week or two that they say it will take to put the new system in. But certainly, cutting off Russia from the SWIFT system does block its trade and its economic relations with Europe. The US would like to see Europe more dependent on the it for the supply of vital resources.
In the US, money is not made by its companies investing in industry and in production. But its big companies can make huge profits, largely via monopoly rents, resource rents, or other forms of rent extraction. And 90 per cent of corporate income in the US is spent on share buybacks and dividend pay-outs, not on investing in new industries and it is no longer expected that any dramatic increase in private investment in manufacturing will occur in the US, while China is trying to avoid the rentier policies, as well as the financialisation and privatisation that has made America so high-cost and so ineffective. And the US is blaming China for over-regulating and supporting its businesses (Siddiqui, 2021).
For the classical economists, the whole concept of free markets, from Adam Smith to John Stuart Mill, was to free industrial capitalism from the rentier class, from the landlords, and from banking and the monopolies that banks created in organising trusts. So, the US realises that the economy has been transformed in the last 40 years, since the 1980s, since Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, when Margaret Thatcher said, “There is no alternative.” Of course, there were many alternatives. But the US would like to create the “rules-based order” of free markets, meaning no government power to regulate or tax the corporate and rules-based order that supports the rentier class – a hereditary, financial, small minority of rich corporates of the population, which could hold the rest of the population in debt, or keep them in permanent dependency and job insecurity.
The US has often used its military power to enhance its political, industrial, and financial base. As Brooks et al. emphasised, “Deep engagement allows the United States to institutionalise its alliances and wrap its hegemonic rule in its rules-based order. The result is to make the US alliance system – especially among its core liberal members – far more robust and harder to challenge than if the United States were to disengage” (cited in Cypher, 2016:801).
On Ukraine’s current crisis, Professor John Mearsheimer (2022) argues, “The West, and especially America, is principally responsible for the crisis which began in February 2014. It has now turned into a war that not only threatens to destroy Ukraine but also has the potential to escalate into a nuclear war between Russia and NATO. The trouble over Ukraine started at NATO’s Bucharest summit in April 2008… Russian leaders responded immediately with outrage, characterising this decision as an existential threat to Russia and vowing to thwart it. According to a respected Russian journalist, Mr Putin “flew into a rage” and warned that “if Ukraine joins NATO, it will do so without Crimea and the eastern regions… America ignored Moscow’s red line, however, and pushed forward to make Ukraine a Western bulwark on Russia’s border… These efforts eventually sparked hostilities in February 2014, after an uprising (which was supported by America) caused Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, to flee the country… The next major confrontation came in December 2021 and led directly to the current war. The main cause was that Ukraine was becoming a de facto member of NATO… Unsurprisingly, Moscow found this evolving situation intolerable and began mobilising its army on Ukraine’s border last spring to signal its resolve to Washington. But it had no effect, as the Biden administration continued to move closer to Ukraine.” He further states, “America and its allies may be able to prevent a Russian victory in Ukraine, but the country will be gravely damaged, if not dismembered. Moreover, there is a serious threat of escalation beyond Ukraine, not to mention the danger of nuclear war” (Mearsheimer, 2022).
Russian President Putin appears to be concerned about the security threat to his country. But due to this security threat, he opposes the IMF policy not because the IMF is basically a promoter of international finance capital but because the IMF is promoting US foreign policy. Putin is concerned with the role of the IMF in facilitating the US hegemony over Ukraine. But in the case of the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine, there seems to be a close intermingling of the US foreign policy interests with the IMF. Therefore, it is not only the question of the role of the IMF but here in this instance, keeping Ukraine under IMF control. Moreover, the IMF insists that to borrow more, Ukraine has to meet certain conditionalities including a reduction in real wages and cuts in welfare spending, particularly in the healthcare and education sectors.
Putin has presided over the growth of tremendous inequality in Russia. However, it began with the collapse of the Soviet Union and then, under President Boris Yeltsin, Russia witnessed a huge rise in inequality.
In the name of efficiency and competition, the IMF would like to eliminate the role of the government to intervene in the economy. It means the removal of subsidies to small and medium producers and their role to keep essential goods prices low and remove its role to provide education, healthcare, and employment.
There is a general objective of the MNCs that all countries should be open to the free movement of capital and finance and even commodities. In fact, that is the essence of the neoliberal economic policy that fundamentally economies should be opened. It is not just for capital to come in and set up industries or capital to come in and buy up industries. But capital must come in also to take control of the sources of raw materials (Siddiqui, 2022).
During the Cold War with the Soviet Union, there was an ideological confrontation between communism and capitalism. It was generally believed that the hegemony of international finance capital was thwarted by the Soviet Union and East European countries, as these countries were part of the centrally planned economies and not integrated with the US and EU markets. Under it, the state played a very important role in generally directing the way in which the economy was to develop. Therefore, that was a regime in which the Soviet Union was opposed to the free operation of the market and the free operation of international finance capital.
Putin is by no means against the hegemony of international finance capital. He is not in an ideological battle against the domination of a neighbouring country by an organisation that acts in the interests of international finance capital. His concern is only with Russian security. He is, in other words, concerned only with the role of the IMF as a promoter of US geostrategic interests, not with the role of the IMF as a promoter of neoliberalism in general. In fact, the gross inequality and even absolute destitution that a neoliberal regime created is not too far from what Putin himself has achieved. We should not forget that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the IMF’s neoliberal reforms were adopted by Russia and resulted in a huge drop in the country’s GDP, a huge fall in the national income, and a massive increase in unemployment.
In the 1980s, when China opened its economy for foreign capital and technology with its low unit costs attracted foreign capital, China became a new “workshop of the world”. Due to the availability of cheap labour and good infrastructure, China was able to retain a large proportion of surplus value generated in the case of most developing countries and successfully created joint ventures and partnerships with global businesses and access to acquire new technology from Western companies.
In the 1990s, when China opened to international trade and was admitted to the WTO in 2001, this opened a huge market to foreign companies and investors where MNCs based in the West could sell their products and get rid of the overproduction crisis. And also, taking advantage of a huge pool of educated and low-cost workers and earning higher profits under such circumstances, China became the “workshop of the world”. During the 1990s, China’s exports enjoyed low-tariff access to the US market, which encouraged China to join WTO in 2001. In February 2020, the US and China kept the same level of tariffs. Compared to the pre-trade-war period, US tariffs on Chinese products increased 2.5 times (Yao, 2021).
China’s phenomenal growth over the last four decades has had no comparison in human history. China has done quite well so far in terms of growth and has been able to reduce poverty significantly in the last less than four decades.
This study has discussed the rising tension on economic and strategic issues, especially between the US, China, and Russia, and it seems that following the end of the Cold War, the US in its quest to consolidate its global hegemony has attempted to redraw the imperialist spheres of influence globally.
At present, the US economy is performing poorly in terms of growth, productivity, and investments compared to China. The challenger, i.e., China, has to figure out in which areas the US is weak and how to strengthen its economy and global influence. This is the same strategy the US adopted a century earlier when it was trying to replace Britain. Recently, China has made an alliance with Russia.
Until recently, the US was motivated by the hope that Chinese elites would become a countervailing force against the military and Communist Party establishment. It seems that the present criticism against China is built on its economic success rather than its ideology. China’s success is based on a careful application of state capitalism through gradually promoting and enhancing industrialisation by taking advantage of low-cost production and access to global markets.
This study concludes that the US has long applied economic sanctions as a means to try to undermine the governments that oppose US policies. The US-China economic rivalry could generate a “sphere of influence” in which countries could be drawn into the sphere of influence and thus, could possibly divide the world. So, we are seeing an intensification of economic warfare, especially against China and Russia, and the US is hoping that somehow this will weaken and divide them.
About the Author
Dr. Kalim Siddiqui is an economist specialising in International Political Economy, Development Economics, International Trade, and International Economics. His work, which combines elements of international political economy and development economics, economic policy, economic history and international trade, often challenges prevailing orthodoxy about which policies promote overall development in less-developed countries. Kalim teaches international economics at the Department of Accounting, Finance and Economics, University of Huddersfield, UK. He has taught economics since 1989 at various universities in Norway and the UK.
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