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Why The West Shouldn't Be Afraid of China, but of Its Own Neoliberal Policy

Territorial disputes are a major source of friction between the People's Republic of China and its neighbours in the South China Sea.  Chinese President Xi Jinping's recent statement that China should become a maritime power was echoed by state media such as the Global Times and China Daily. This suggests that the PRC might pursue a more decisive, aggressive foreign policy in the near future. 

However, this is not a new development. In the past, too, the PRC didn't shrink from using force when it was necessary, for example when it occupied Mischief Reef or engaged in maritime clashes with the Vietnamese navy. 

In view of these facts, Westerners ask themselves what they should do. Is China really a threat? Or is it a peaceful power, as many Chinese claim? Should Western governments contain China, or should they disengage completely from East Asia, leaving the solution of territorial disputes to the parties involved alone? 

Why American Involvement In East Asia Is Untenable

American involvement in East Asia is both morally and financially untenable, and it is destined to end sooner or later. As long as the West doesn't understand this, a possible future war between China and the West will have to be blamed on Western hubris. 

The current military presence of the US in East Asia is a consequence of World War II, the Cold War, and the so-called War on Terror. After 1945 American involvement in Asia was cemented and its geopolitical and economic entanglement in the region deepened, becoming a kind of axiom, a principle that needs no rational justification.

The reason why the US became involved in Asia is in itself justifiable. Wars between rivalling powers in the world made it necessary to bring order into the chaos that reigned in the period between the First and the Second World War (1918-1945). Japan, Germany and Italy were aggressive states that wanted to conquer vast areas of the globe and enslave, if not physically exterminate, local people. 

American intervention supported the anti-Japanese struggle in Asia. At that time, the US and China were natural allies, although the fact that the US helped China defeat the Japanese seems to have been nearly forgotten. The Republic of China on the mainland (1912-1949) was an anti-Communist, nationalist state that was in no way ideologically opposed to the US. The main enemy of the US was Japan. But this changed when Communism started to spread throughout East Asia. From that moment on, American anti-Communism shaped its foreign policy. Even after the PRC and the US normalised relations in 1979, the two countries never really solved the ambivalence inherent in their friend-foe relationship. 

Following World War II, it became natural for many Americans to see the United States as a great power whose historical mission was to guarantee that a new World War never happened again. The US engaged in regional conflicts like in Vietnam, but overall they wanted to ensure stability, order, and prosperity within their sphere of influence. American pragmatism is demonstrated by the fact that the US never invaded any Soviet state even when these states violated basic human rights or took on a provocative stance. When the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, American President J.F. Kennedy refused to attack East Germany. When Russian troops marched on Prague in 1968, there was no military reaction from the West. For better or worse, the focus on stability and security prevented a new world conflict. It was therefore a successful strategy.

After 1989, everything changed. The collapse of Communism was understood by the West as the definitive judgement of history in favour of its own system and way of life. "The West is the best", was the new slogan. Western democracy, Western capitalism, Western values were the best. In the words of Francis Fukuyama, that was "the end of history", the ultimate global triumph of Western civilisation. 

The shift that occurred after 1989 has often remained unnoticed, but it was the root of many evils of the present. 1989 saw a convergence of many cultural and historical elements that put an end to Western pragmatism. Now the West was no longer supposed to guarantee stability, order, and prosperity. Now the West saw itself as the messiah of humanity, as the civilisation that had been chosen to dominate and bless the globe. In the minds of many Westerners, there was no alternative to the Western system. Western civilisation was so superior that it was also legitimate to impose Western values by force. The second Iraq War has its roots in the Western sense of superiority that developed in the early 1990s. This is a complete departure from the pragmatism and the prudence that had ensured the peaceful co-existence of the Democratic-Capitalist bloc and the Communist bloc.

The most important aspect of the shift that happened in the West in 1989 is often ignored. The 1970s and 1980s saw the rise of neoliberal movements that became increasingly influential in the Anglo-Saxon world. When the Soviet system collapsed, neoliberalism began to dominate Western public opinion. The alleged triumph of the West was not understood as the triumph of capitalism in its various forms, but as the triumph of neoliberal capitalism alone. Capitalism and neoliberalism began to be used as synonymous. As neoliberalism I understand an ideological and political movement that propagates the myth of the free market as a self-regulating, naturally harmonious entity, while in practice enhancing the interests of certain lobbies through policies that often contradict its own theoretical premises.   

In the meantime, through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, East Asian countries caught up and outperformed the West. Their industrial expansion and GDP growth was staggering. The rise of Asia began to spark fears in the West. Paradoxically, Western images of triumph and decadence have been co-existing for decades now. While the West preached neoliberal economics (which were supposedly the best in the world) and the superiority of democracy (allegedly a precondition for the creation of wealthy, open societies), East Asian countries did not pursue a neoliberal economic policy, but a mixed policy of market and state intervention, and some of them were not democracies, either.

This is what I call the neoliberal trap. Since 1989 the West has been largely dominated by a quasi-totalitarian form of neoliberal ideology and by a sense of cultural superiority that are at odds with the reality of the post-Cold War world.

In fact, while many countries in the West celebrated themselves but didn't live up to their expectations in practice, China's ascendancy staggered Western public opinion, which could simply not grasp how a country could perform so well without adopting either democracy or neoliberal capitalism. China simply doesn't fit in the ideological prerequisites of Western triumphalism. Therefore, China is perceived as a threat to the particular neoliberal variety of Western capitalism that has become the sole dominant ideology of the West.

But instead of recognising the inadequacy of neoliberal capitalism, Western public opinion had to find an enemy against which to direct its own frustration. And this enemy was China. China was both the proof of the failure of neoliberalism, and it was the enemy against whom the West could direct its frustration. China contradicts the ideology that Western public opinion has adopted as its own religion, the religion of neoliberal free market and free trade economics, the religion of American-style democracy, the religion of Western supremacy.

Therefore, Western public opinion has focused on depicting China as a threat, although Western countries are geographically so far away from China that no single territorial issue could ever arise between the two sides.     

What is now to be done? I argue that the only solution for the US and its key allies is 1) to accept the idea that American military presence in Asia will sooner or later end; 2) to realise the failure of neoliberal economic orthodoxy as well as its practical application, and to change course.

1) the military disentanglement of the US in Asia is a matter of time. It will either happen peacefully, or it will happen through war. After the end of the Cold War, there is no reason for the US to remain in the region. However, there are geopolitical considerations that make American disentanglement quite difficult, for example the existence of strong ties with South Korea or Japan. These difficulties should undoubtedly be taken into account.

2) the real threat to the West is not China, but it's the neoliberal orthodoxy that has been dominating the West for the past forty years, preventing any form of democratic and open debate about economic policy as well as a healthy competition between parties. The best national security policy for Western countries is to outperform China economically, to ensure that Western citizens enjoy a high standard of living, and to guarantee that political parties compete with each other in terms of contents and programmes in order to give voice to the contrasting needs and views of their citizens. 

The United States did not win World War II because of their military presence in Europe or in Asia. In fact, it was Great Britain who had military bases all over Asia. But Great Britain was quickly defeated by Japan because Britain's economy was in decline and couldn't any longer sustain an empire. It did not possess the industrial and financial strength to fight a war, despite its military and administrative presence on the continent. 

On the other hand, the United States had the largest economy in the world, a huge domestic market, a high standard of living, and an enormous industrial capacity. The best defence policy is not mainly based on military tactics or on military presence abroad, it is based on the wealth, the industrial capacity and the standard of living of a nation. 


  1. Excellent article, kudos to you. This is my first time diving into this topic of relations between china and the rest of the world. What further literature can you recommend for a more profound grasp of these relations?

  2. Thank you very much: ) Well, there are really tons of books about China's foreign policy out there. Some of them tend to be very anti-Chinese, others deal with Western fears rather than with China itself. Anyway, let me recommend you a few books I like, most of which are quite objective.

    General introduction:

    - Chinese Foreign Relations: Power and Policy since the Cold War by Robert G. Sutter

    - Shiping Tang / Mingjiang Li / Amitav Acharya (edit.): Living with China. Regional States and China through Crises and Turning Points.(a very good collection of essays by various professors discussing China's relations with all its neighbours)

    - Chinese Foreign Policy: An Introduction by Marc Lanteigne

    - The China Renaissance: The Rise of Xi Jinping and the 18th Communist Party Congress by the South China Morning Post Contributors and Jonathan Sharp

    - Chinese Perceptions of the U.S.: An Exploration of China's Foreign Policy Motivations by Biwu Zhang and Richard Herrmann

    About Western Fears of China and Western Triumphalism:

    - When China Rules the World by Martin Jacques

    - The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East by Kishore Mahbubani (this is about Asia in general, but very insightful to understand the resentment between Asian countries and the West)

    China and the South China Sea:

    - China's Policy Towards Territorial Disputes: The Case of the South China Sea Islands by Chi-kin Lo

    - Territorial Disputes and Conflict Management: The art of avoiding war by Rongxing Guo

    China and Japan:

    - Japan's Foreign Policy, 1945-2003: The Quest for a Proactive Policy by Kazuhiko Togo (really detailed history of Japan's foreign relations and large section about China-Japan; highly recommended)

    - Chinese-Japanese Relations in the Twenty First Century by Marie Söderberg

    - Japanese Apologies for World War II: A Rhetorical Study by Jane Yamazaki (a very good book)

    China and Taiwan:

    - Whither Taiwan and Mainland China: National Identity, the State and Intellectuals by Zhidong Hao (I particularly recommend this one)

    - Inseparable Separation: The Making of China's Taiwan Policy by Jing Huang and Xiaoting Li

    - China-Taiwan Relations in a Global Context: Taiwan's Foreign Policy and Relations by George Wei

    I hope it helps: )


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