We are at an important juncture of world history. Despite the incredible progress made in certain areas of human civilization, the possibility of annihilation by interstate conflicts among competing powers using unimaginably destructive weaponry continues to haunt human relations into the 21st Century. This is despite the fact that challenges such as climatic disasters could end up being devastating for all forms life on Earth. It was the U.S.SR-USSR conflict that threatened the destruction of the planet 20 years ago. This was due in part to the imperial ambitions a newly established empire in world historical history to remake the world to its own liking. Today, the U.S.-China war is threatening us with a futuristic scenario global annihilation. As the Western empire continues to decline, it insists upon dictating the direction and goals of world affairs.
Below is an interview with one of our most revered public intellectuals of the past half century. His intellectual stature was compared to that Newton, Galileo, and Descartes. Noam Chomsky is Institute professor Emeritus of MIT and currently Laureate professor at the University of Arizona. The recipient of scores of highly prestigious awards, including the Sydney Peace Prize and the Kyoto Prize (Japan’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize), of dozens of honorary doctorate degrees from the world’s most renowned universities, and author of some 150 books on linguistics, politics, international affairs, history and media studies, Chomsky has had tremendous influence on a variety of areas of scholarly and scientific inquiry, including linguistics, logic and mathematics, computer science, psychology, media studies, philosophy, politics and international affairs.
C.J. C.J. Polychroniou The relationship between the two countries today is clearly more hostile than it was 10 years ago. What forces or processes do you believe are responsible for the growing tensions in U.S.-China relations today?
Noam Chomsky: After the fall of the USSR, there was much euphoria about the end of history with “liberal democracy” (a code word for the U.S.) having achieved total victory. A corollary was that China could now be brought within the “rule-based international order.”
The latter is a common phrase that is well worth considering. It refers a new international order in which America sets the rules and replaces the United Nations’ international order that the U.S. finds obsolete and irrelevant. The UN Charter, which is the Supreme Law of the Land, is constantly infringed by the U.S. Constitution. This matter is not of concern to those who revere the Holy Text. Since the U.S. lost control over the UN with decolonization and occasional backsliding by the privileged, its provisions have been deemed inappropriate for the modern world. UN members no longer know “how to play,” to borrow Thomas Friedman’s ridicule of France when it failed to support the benign U.S. invasion of Iraq, accompanied by his call for the miscreant to be deprived of its permanent membership in the Security Council. The self-described “world’s greatest deliberative body” contented itself with renaming French fries as “Freedom fries” in the Senate cafeteria.
Right-thinking people understand that the outdated UN-based international order is to be replaced by the rule-based order, including such constructions as the highly protectionist “free-trade agreements,” right now yielding such pleasures as barring a “people’s vaccine” that would alleviate the COVID disaster. The Clintonites were particularly excited about the inclusion of a well-disciplined China in this forward-looking rule based order.
It didn’t work as planned. China refuses to play when it doesn’t want to. Worse still, it can’t be intimidated. It is independent. That way is often ugly, but that’s of no relevance to the rule-based order, which easily tolerates vicious crimes by the righteous — notably the Master — with equanimity and often approval.
China is not Europe. The countries of Europe may fume when the U.S. decides to destroy the joint agreement with Iran (the JCPOA) and to impose harsh sanctions to punish Iran for Washington’s demolition of the agreement. They may even claim that they will find ways to avoid the U.S.’s murderous sanctions. They continue to do so, unwilling to suffer the wrath or punitive measures of Washington. Similar in many other cases.
China is different. It insists upon the UN-based system (which he violates when he chooses). As former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating explained, the much-heralded “China threat” reduces to the fact that China exists and is successfully defying the rules.
It is not the only one to do so. The charge of “successful defiance” comes from the annals of the U.S. State Department in the 1960s. It was directed against the “Cuban threat,” namely, Cuba’s “successful defiance” of U.S. policies dating back to the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which declared Washington’s intention to dominate the hemisphere once the British nuisance had been removed. John Quincy Adams (the intellectual author of Manifest Destiny), was able to anticipate this. He instructed his cabinet colleagues that U.S. power would increase while Britain’s declined, so that Cuba (indeed the hemisphere) would fall into U.S. hands by the laws of “political gravitation” as an apple falls from a tree. That happened in 1898 when the U.S. intervened to prevent Cuba’s liberation from Spanish rule, turning Cuba into a virtual colony, events recorded in properly sanitized history as Washington’s “liberation” of Cuba.
Cuba has been punished viciously for this successful defiance, including John F. Kennedy’s terrorist war, which almost brought about terminal nuclear war, and a crushing blockade. The U.S. sanctions against Cuba are opposed by the whole of the world: 184-2 in a recent UN vote, with Israel only voting with its U.S. protector. However, Europe does not obey, even though it is reluctantly.
Sometimes China’s practices sink to almost indescribable depths of evil. Once Washington realized that China is successfully defying the rules, it turned to the project of impeding China’s technological development — harming itself in the process, but overcoming the “China threat” is of transcendent importance. The campaign to stop Chinese development aims to prevent others from using Chinese technology. But the devious Chinese are defying the rule-based international order by “setting up a network of vocational colleges around the world [to] train students in dozens of countries in technical areas … on Chinese technology with Chinese standards as part of a full court press to globalize Chinese tech. It is a component of a bigger effort to tighten the economic linkages between China and the Global South, which Beijing sees as key to competition with the United States,” according to foreign policy scholars Niva Yau and Dirk van der Kley. Worse still, they note, “the Chinese government has been willing to listen to host countries,” and is training local instructors who will upgrade the skills of the local trainees and be able to develop their own societies, within the Chinese orbit and using Chinese technology.
These projects are part the larger Chinese global strategy framework. This is already being implemented in Eurasia. It will likely soon reach Turkey and Central Europe. If Afghanistan is able survive U.S. sanction, it will likely join the China-based Shanghai Cooperation Organization. It will be joined by Russia, India and Pakistan as well as Iran and the Central Asian nations. China might manage to shift Afghanistan’s economy from opium export, the staple when it was under U.S. control, to exploiting its considerable mineral resources, to China’s benefit. Chinese economic initiatives also extend to Southeast Asia, Africa, the Middle East (including Israel) and even to Washington’s backyard in Latin America, despite strenuous U.S. efforts to block such intrusion.
Critics of these initiatives “accuse China of pursuing a policy of ‘debt-trap diplomacy’: luring poor, developing countries into agreeing [to] unsustainable loans to pursue infrastructure projects so that, when they experience financial difficulty, Beijing can seize the asset, thereby extending its strategic or military reach.” Perhaps, but the charges are contested by reputable Western sources, including a Chatham House study that “demonstrates that the evidence for such views is limited,” and studies by U.S. researchers assert that these charges, including those leveled by Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo, are baseless and that, “Chinese banks are willing to restructure the terms of existing loans and have never actually seized an asset from any country,” in particular, the prize example in the charges, a port in Sri Lanka.
However, the U.S. is well aware that debt traps can be a concern. Right now, for example, Washington is deeply concerned about a debt trap afflicting Cambodia, which is under pressure to repay a loan as it easily can, the lender claims, also arguing that it “would set a bad precedent for other states” if the debt were cancelled.
Washington is the lender. The debt was incurred by the government the U.S. was supporting (or more realistically, had imposed), in the early 1970s, when official U.S. policy, in Henry Kissinger’s immortal words, was “massive bombing campaign in Cambodia.… Anything that flies on anything that moves,” a call for genocide that would be hard to match in the archival record. The results were, predictably so, horrible. The perpetrator is highly honored. The victims must repay all of their debts. We wouldn’t want to set a bad precedent.
Sometimes, depravity is so extreme that words fail.
The report on Cambodia’s debt trap adds that, “if Washington were to wipe out a large chunk of the debt, it would only do so if it believed this gesture was met by good-faith reciprocity from Phnom Penh. Frankly, there’s zero reason for such a belief now. One example of this was last month, when, following [U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy] Sherman’s visit to Phnom Penh, the Cambodian government allowed the defense attaché at the U.S. Embassy, Marcus M. Ferrara, to tour the Ream Naval Base.… Yet he turned up to find that he was only allowedTo visit some parts of the site. Phnom Penh was in its rights to limit Ferrara’s visit, yet it did nothing to absolve U.S. fears that Cambodia is hiding something.”
It could be trying to hide a deal with China. China is always evil.
As we discussed, much of the panic over the China threat is focused on alleged threats to China’s coast, where the U.S. military advantages are overwhelming (and only a fraction of the U.S. global military advantage). That was so even before the recent U.S.-U.K. decision to provide Australia with a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines to confront China’s four old noisy diesel submarines bottled up by U.S. power in the South China Sea.
The U.S. claims to be defending freedom of navigation with its military maneuvers in China’s Exclusive Economic Zone — pure fraud, as we have already discussed. There are serious issues regarding Chinese violations of the Law of the Sea. This has been ratified only by one maritime power, the U.S. These issues should be addressed by diplomacy, led by regional powers, and not by provocative acts that increase tensions to full-scale warfare.
Taiwan has been reintroduced as a major issue in U.S.-Chinese relations. According to military experts, the Chinese military has increased its activities in Taiwan Strait and is now acquiring the equipment required for an invasion. In fact, Taipei has warned that China is getting ready to invade the island by 2025, although one would have to assume that such a scenario is most unlikely because of the impact that it would have on China’s relations with the rest of the world. It is possible, however, as President Biden stated in October during a meeting. CNN “town hall,” that the U.S. would defend Taiwan if China invaded? And is there really a “Taiwan agreement” between the U.S. and China, as Biden also seems to have suggested earlier in that month?
The critical agreement is the “one-China” doctrine that has been held for over 40 years. It is kept vague. It is best for the U.S., China, and Taiwan to abstain from provocative acts.
China is determined to expand its nuclear arsenal and the U.S. appears ready to push for arms-control negotiations. What lessons can we draw from the Cold War era in order to ensure that a U.S.-China arms race is prevented?
The main lesson from the Cold War era is that it’s a virtual miracle that we have survived. Although it’s unnecessary to go over the history again, it is important to remember how many opportunities were lost to reduce the dangers.
I believe the 60-year-old case was the most instructive. Nikita Khrushchev was well aware that Russia would not be able to achieve the economic growth he desired if it was locked in an arms race with an even more powerful and wealthy adversary. He proposed sharply reducing the offensive weapons of each other. The Kennedy administration rejected the offer, turning instead to rapid military expansion, even though the United States was already well ahead. The prominent international relations scholar Kenneth Waltz described what happened at the time: the Kennedy administration “undertook the largest strategic and conventional peace-time military build-up the world has yet seen … even as Khrushchev was trying at once to carry through a major reduction in the conventional forces and to follow a strategy of minimum deterrence, and we did so even though the balance of strategic weapons greatly favored the United States.”
As is often the case, the policy has harmed national security while increasing state power. Washington doesn’t care about that.
By now it’s widely recognized — including a joint statement by Henry Kissinger, Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shultz, the Senate’s leading specialist on armaments Sam Nunn and former Secretary of Defense William Perry — that we should move expeditiously to eliminate nuclear weapons, a process that the signers of the nonproliferation treaty are obligated to undertake. This year, the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons came into effect. Despite not being implemented due to U.S. interference nuclear weapons-free zones were established in large parts of the world.
There are several ways to enhance security.
China has so far been slow to develop nuclear weapons. This policy should be continued. The U.S. can help by ending its provocative acts and moving towards an arms control agreement with China. There are many options. outlined by arms control specialists. While the Republican administrations since 2000 have been dismantling the arms control regime that has been laboriously constructed over the past 60 years, even Trump’s wrecking ball didn’t manage to demolish all of them; Biden was able to rescue the New Start Treaty just before its expiration. This system can be revived, and the process can be carried forward until the scourge of arms control is eliminated from the earth.
The bottom line is that either the U.S. or China will work together to address the critical issues we all face or they will both end up in a coma, bringing down the rest of the globe.