Sunday, February 28, 2021


Tom Cotton's Big Plan

Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) launched his 2024 presidential campaign last week with the publication of his bold plan "to send the Chinese Communist Party into the 'ash heap of history'": Beat China: Targeted Decoupling and the Economic Long War. This comes at a time when the Biden administration is making aggressive noises about China, to no small extent because Republicans are goading him on. Biden's rhetoric in turn offers cover and legitimation for Cotton's much more dangerously extreme stance. For an "explainer" on Cotton's scheme, see Alex Ward: Tom Cotton's big plan to "beat China," explained.

Cotton's plan has two major planks. The first is to "decouple" from China's economy, isolating China from world trade, in the hopes that will lead to an economic collapse that will bring down the political order and end Communist Party rule. Something like that did happen to cause the collapse of the Soviet Union, but there are many differences between the two cases, and far more stringent efforts to isolate North Korea, Cuba, and Iran only resulted in the targeted regimes digging in deeper to maintain their hold on power.

The second plank is a set of reforms to the American economy to make it more competitive with China, and to use US power around the world to force other countries to curtail their trade with China and to buy more American exports. This section is less coherent (e.g, "the senator singles out Japan as a place that could buy more American goods, and points to Malaysia and Vietnam as having labor forces that could produce these goods at competitive prices"), and in some cases comes close to admitting that Chinese state-directed methods are more effective than the US "free market" fetish (e.g., in the production of valuable "rare earth" metals).

We need to consider four questions to evaluate Cotton's plan:

  1. What are the risks to the US of forcing regime change on China? Are there risks so great that they would limit US action?
  2. Economic sanctions are widely regarded as a low-risk alternative to direct military action. But are they effective at achieving Cotton's goals, specifically regime change?
  3. Even if Cotton's plan can be implemented successfully without risk, is it really something Americans would and should want to do?
  4. Aside from the direct costs and risks of waging economic warfare, what are the significant opportunity costs -- other things that the US should be doing -- in choosing to oppose China?

If you honestly consider these questions, I'm pretty sure you'll see that Cotton's "plan" is one of the dumbest and most reckless ever. Indeed, the answers are so obvious one might quickly move on to real puzzles, like what motivates Cotton in this case? Romanticism for the lost Cold War? Defense industry graft? The macho certitude that America can always bend the world to its will?

Let's take these questions one by one:

1. What are the risks to the US of forcing regime change on China? Are there risks so great that they would limit US action?

Regime change is a tall demand, one that few rulers are willing to acquiesce to, and consequently one that is rarely insisted upon. Even the US compromised in accepting the less-than-unconditional surrender of Japan in 1945. America's Cold War aim was containment of the Soviet Union, not regime change. So Cotton's call for ending Communist Party control of China is an extremely aggressive stance. Admittedly, the US has insisted on regime change when confronting small and relatively weak countries, like Panama, Iraq, and Afghanistan. But China is not small nor weak. China, like the US, possesses nuclear weapons and missiles that can deliver them anywhere on earth. China is about the same physical size as the US, has a comparably sized economy, and close to four times as many people. While the US may have technical military advantages, China is too big to attack, and there are major limits on how much the US can intimidate China. Conversely, the US is too vulnerable to a Chinese counterattack to risk any existential military threat to China.

Cotton probably understands that much, but is hoping to find some internal flaw in the Chinese system that will cause it to collapse if given a little push -- as happened with the Soviet Union. This view is very naive. Chinese leaders observed the collapse of the Soviet system in Russia and Eastern Europe very closely, and moved decisively to repress dissent, and to direct needed economic reforms from the top down, reinforcing rather than undermining Party power. And they've been very successful, with a sustained 30-year track record of economic growth that far exceeds the performance of any other country or system, not least compared to the US.

2. Economic sanctions are widely regarded as a low-risk alternative to direct military action. But are they effective at achieving Cotton's goals, specifically regime change?

Short answer is no. The US has tried blockades and crippling economic sanctions against a number of much smaller, less self-sufficient nations (North Korea, Cuba, Iraq, Iran, more recently Venezuela), and the net effect has been to entrench existing regimes even further. Moreover, after the US did force regime change in Iraq, there was no groundswell of public support for their "liberation" -- rather, there was an armed revolt against US occupation. The only case of sanctions working was against South Africa, where they threatened long-standing economic ties between the West and the Apartheid regime. (This suggests that sanctions might be effective at influencing Israel to reform its own Apartheid regime, although I can think of reasons to be skeptical.)

The standard response to sanctions is autarky: if you can't import goods, make them yourself. This is tough for small nations, especially those with export-dominated economies. (Cuba especially struggled, most severely after the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia stopped buying up their sugar surplus and providing them with oil, but Cuba survived nonetheless.) China is big, diverse, and already provides most of its own needs. But also China's size makes other nations doubt the value of sanctions. It's easy for a US "ally" to forego trade with North Korea or Cuba or Myanmar, but China is a big trade partner for everyone, with a lot of hard currency (especially dollars) to buy and invest abroad. And China offers the irresistible prospect of a very large market for foreign exporters and investors, and they've long plied this prospect for favorable terms. It's hard to think of major US companies who don't have investments and operations tied to China. That, in turn, buys China political favors, as when they got Boeing to lobby for approval of China's WTO membership.

3. Even if Cotton's plan can be implemented successfully without risk, is it really something Americans would and should want to do?

This is the question least likely to be raised, given how easy it is for Americans to slip back into a Cold War mindset. Right-wingers forget that the Nixon thaw with China was actually a Cold War ploy to isolate the Soviet Union, and that China was long regarded as a Communist country we could do business with. Labor Democrats worried about losing jobs to China, but that only started bothering Republicans when Trump made it an issue in 2016. Trump canceled TTP and played some tariff games, but did nothing to rebalance trade with China, let alone safeguarding American jobs. Meanwhile, neoliberal Democrats took advantage of Chinese abuses of human rights, adding to the list of dictatorships Trump was accused of cozying up to. Meanwhile, right-wingers panicked over the "rising tide of socialism" among Democrats, resurrecting the deep paranoia of the racist "who lost China?" charges of 1949-50.

Still, what difference does any of this make? The oft-repeated charge that China wants to dominate the next century the way the US has dominated the last one, but that only brings up two further questions: has domination really paid dividends to most Americans? And is domination by any country even desirable looking forward? I'd argue both answers are no, and I'd further assert that the charge reflects Americans' own dissatisfaction with their supposed rule. Policing the world is a big job the US isn't up to (and was never much good at). Bankrolling the world is another big problem. Politics in the US has been ceded to special interests, whose orientation doesn't even come close to satisfying domestic needs, let alone those of people elsewhere. Despite the absence of democratic controls, the Chinese government is probably more in tune with the needs and desires of its people than the American system is. After all, over the last 30 years, China has lifted the majority of its population out of poverty, while income and wealth of most Americans has stagnated or declined.

You can also look at the "defense" postures of the two countries. The US projects power through nearly a thousand bases scattered all around the world. The US spends as much on "defense" as the rest of the world combined. China spends about one-quarter as much, enough to control its own population, defend its borders, and deter attack, but has little presence beyond its borders. The main points of contention between the US and China are Taiwan -- formerly part of China, which broke away when Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalist Army retreated there in 1949, although it had been occupied by Japan from 1895-1945; after retreat, Chiang continued to claim mainland China, and tried to foment guerrilla war against Mao's government -- and various uninhabited islands in the China Sea, which China wants to exploit economically. These are old claims, which China has been steadfast in but has pursued very cautiously. China has also fought several border skirmishes with India, based on conflicting border claims dating back to British control of India, but China hasn't sought to extend its territory beyond the disputed claims.

Chiang was a brutal and corrupt military ruler, but since his death Taiwan has developed into a stable, prosperous democracy. It would be a shame to see it incorporated into a China that falls far short of those rights, but it would take extraordinary ego and folly for either the US or China to threaten nuclear war over a 70-year-old claim. But this seems more likely to happen if the US manages to push China into a corner than if we retain diplomatic manners. And less likely to happen if China becomes even more secure in a world with fewer arms and more openness.

Of course, various Americans, for various reasons, seize every instance of political repression for propaganda purposes. These are not insignificant issues, but they also aren't things that Americans have much standing to publicize. There are international organizations which focus on human rights issues, who are far better positioned to speak out on China's abuses, but they are supported by the US only in rare occasions of political convenience, and more generally opposed because the US and its "allies" (especially Israel) are often every bit as guilty. For instance, the US complains about Chinese treatment of Uighur Moslems while the US has long detained them in Guantanamo. The situation in Hong Kong is more complex, but again you can find lots of similar examples in US management of its territories.

The US has economic grievances as well, but none are worth going to war over. Two cases Cotton dwells on are "intellectual property" rents and China's monopolization of rare earth metals. The former is a scam to force poor nations to pay tribute to the richest people in richer nations, thus maintaining the global system of inequality. US trade policy has focused heavily on rents because the people who collect them have exploited the corruptness of the American political system for their purposes. We'd be better off abolishing the whole concept.

Of course, China doesn't like "IP" rents not because they care about the principle of the thing, but because currently they'd wind up having to pay tribute to richer countries like the US. But one could easily imagine the balance of payments flipping in the future, in which case China will happily agree. One thing the rare earth venture shows is that China understands monopoly power, at least when they come out on top. In one sense, this seems like a case where a country which does national economic planning can come out ahead of a nation which trusts "the market" to make all the decisions. But this can just as well be viewed as a classic capitalist gambit to corner the market for some rare commodity. We're told that the problem is that these metals have military applications, so it would be bad for the US military to be dependent on a potential rival for resources. Of course, it would be straightforward for the US government to direct resources at breaking this monopoly. It just wouldn't necessarily be the capitalist thing to do. But that doesn't bode well for the argument that we need to kill off the Chinese Communist Party to make the world safe for capitalism.

Cotton goes way beyond these obvious complaints. He wants to prevent Chinese students from studying in US universities, on the theory that they might learn something that could be used against us. He wants to prohibit the Chinese from buying up companies in Hollywood, because he's afraid they'll use their influence to corrupt American culture. (Re-read that sentence slowly to savor every nuance.) But Cotton also thinks that Covid-19 was a Chinese bioweapon gone amok. Or maybe he just finds such inflammatory charges convenient in his crusade to make the US despicable.

It's hard to see anything in this litany of complaints where the elimination of China as a military and/or economic rival would materially improve the lot of most Americans. Sure, there may be some business interests who would come out ahead, but many more would lose markets and/or suppliers. Even professional warmongers like Cotton would be better off preserving China as a token threat than scheming without enemies (not that he wouldn't find new ones).

On the other hand, war never gives you an ideal outcome. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to the most miserable decade in Russian history, where social cohesion broke down and property was sucked up by criminal oligarchs, a situation so dire that Putin's gangsta nationalism looked like salvation. China is far less dangerous under its present order than it would be if smashed into chaos.

4. Aside from the direct costs and risks of waging economic warfare, what are the significant opportunity costs -- other things that the US should be doing -- in choosing to oppose China?

The obvious point here is that China has a lot to say about whether the world comes to grips with climate change. A couple decades ago, China was so preoccupied with development it seemed likely to use up most of the world's coal reserves, but recently they've shifted gears and started to embrace non-carbon sources of energy, quickly becoming more responsible than the United States has been.

Open source technology is another area where cooperation could be advantageous to both countries and to the world. Clearly, both the US and China could have done a better job of coordinating in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. The fact that both nations view one another in a quasi-siege mentality has made cooperation difficult. I suspect that American hostility has added to Chinese paranoia over free speech. While there is no need for Americans to approve of Chinese repression, we do need to be less confrontational about it.

For this, we must recognize and respect that Chinese participation in international organizations is essential. For that, we'll need diplomats who can see multiple sides and look for mutually beneficial solutions. And we'll need to keep "paper tigers" like Cotton locked up in their cages.


As the links at the start of this post indicate, Biden has thus far been cautious in his approach to China. I haven't noticed him doing anything grossly stupid, although he has chosen to surround himself with reflexive hawks like Anthony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, and he hasn't actively challenged the provocations of outright hawks like Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz. The Politico article quotes several "China experts" warning about a "negotiation trap," as if there was any path but negotiations that could ever lead to mutual understanding. (Said "experts" were in fact Trump's China hands, who no doubt contributed to Trump's ineffectiveness.)

On the other hand, Biden did seize his first opportunity to do something really stupid in the Middle East: he ordered an airstrike in Syria in response to a so-called provocation in Iraq attributed to a militia allegedly representative of Iran. (See Stephen Miles: Biden's Syria strikes: A perpetual cycle of endless war.) This is significant not just because it continues the "endless war" model that US president have followed since Bill Clinton found he could relieve his personal anxieties by bombing Iraq, but because Biden jumped at his first opportunity to order death-from-air. As Trita Parsi, in Biden said 'Diplomacy is back!' Then he started dropping bombs: it took Trump four months before he ordered the bombing of Syria. As I recall, the first murder Obama ordered was the killing of Somali pirates, which was an even more personal decision than the sanitized military operations Trump and Biden rubber-stamped. I'm not sure who was the last US president not to directly order some kind of military or covert operation aimed at killing people abroad. (Probably Herbert Hoover.)

Hannah Arendt referred to Eichmann's excuse that he was just following orders as "the banality of evil." I'm not sure whether Biden's callous, carefree order, made simply by approving a plan someone else drew up, is more evil, or just more banal. But the immediate effect is to throw a monkey wrench into prospects for returning to the Iran nuclear weapons deal -- a signature Obama achievement, one that Biden had campaigned on.

That's welcome news in Israel and Saudi Arabia, who never seriously worried about Iran's nuclear program but saw it as a way to manipulate Washington into an unthinking anti-Iran alliance. It's not surprising that Trump fell for the con -- the only thing that really mattered to him was cashing the checks. Nor does Biden's background suggest he's capable of independent thought in this arena, but until he realizes the need to reformulate "American interests" in terms of peace, order, justice, and cooperation, he is likely to be blindsided by the various parties convinced that projecting American power is its own virtue.

PS: For examples of the latter, see Robert W Merry: Keeping the hegemon-addicted in their proper place. Parsi followed up the bombing attack with Iran rejects meeting as Biden's slow diplomacy hits predictable snag. Michael T Klare has some constructive suggestions in: Biden, climate change, and China. Biden also has a recognizing reality problem with Russia, as Dave DeCamp reports: Biden says US will 'never' accept Russia's annexation of Crimea.