How dangerous is China? The question is central to understanding Western politics today. In response, it is tempting to rattle off statistics on China’s mechanized divisions, its total industrial output, and the like. The wiser course is to grasp that the question is, in fact, incomplete. Before venturing an answer, we have to complete it: How dangerous is China—and to whom?
Some might dismiss this approach as needlessly complicating something obvious: Of course, China poses a potential danger to us. But that’s exactly the problem: Who “we” are isn’t at all clear today, and yet it is politically profitable for some never to interrogate it. As long as the content of the “we” or “us” in question remains hidden, a whole lot of assumptions can be smuggled into the debate, with no one the wiser.
This sort of political fog pervades the fractious American right today.
Today’s conservatives rather resemble the alliance of democratic or progressive parties arrayed against the Russian tsar in the early 20th century. Back then, there was a slew of overlapping coalitions and tactical alliances and jockeying partisans, often with very different aims and constituencies: A Kadet wasn’t a Socialist Revolutionary, who wasn’t a Menshevik, who, in turn, was certainly no Bolshevik. Yet for a brief moment, these various forces could work together under the banner of “democracy.” Of course, the fact that none of them agreed what that meant would, in time, cause the knives to come out.
Mutatis mutandis, “China” is the American right’s tsar in 2020, and “fighting Beijing” is its equivalent of “democracy”—a catchall watchword wide enough (and, thus, politically meaningless enough) to unite everyone, at least temporarily. If you are an American nationalist or a populist, “China” embodies the corrosion of the US economy through free trade and the resulting dispossession of the middle class, and so “fighting China” becomes a shorthand for reversing the last 30 years of American economic policy. If you’re a Reaganite anti-populist, meanwhile, China can simply stand in for “evil Commie bastards” who threaten “democracy” (read: liberal order).
So do conservatives seek industrial reshoring and an end to costly nation-building projects, ideological wars, and imperial overstretch? Or are they for mobilizing Americans to defend liberal order, even in the teeth of another ruinous war? Should Washington take a more modest role in the world to attend to the decrepit domestic hearth? Or should it mine the South China Sea, shift the US military to the Pacific, and be prepared to put boots on the ground to defend Taiwan and our other “democratic allies” against the Middle Kingdom’s hegemonic ambitions?
Yes, answers today’s right.
Which doesn’t make any sense. The incoherence may be of little consequence for now, but the minute things get hot across the Taiwan Strait, these questions will suddenly become hard either/or propositions. Again, are “we” nationalists and populists, who think US policy should benefit ordinary Americans? Or are “we” hard-nosed hawks, or maybe even starry-eyed Wilsonian crusaders, willing to pay any price in American blood and treasure to protect “embattled democrats” on the other side of the globe?
The fate of Taiwan, from one perspective, really doesn’t matter very much at all. A Chinese civil war, fought nearly 100 years ago, resulted in the current settlement. That wasn’t an American war, and whether the People’s Republic of China or the Republic of China controls this or that territory makes no material difference to the lives of, say, Ohioans. Whereas free trade with China does emphatically affect the lives of people in the Buckeye State, where many counties have lost up to $10,000 in the value of goods produced per worker, had the goods been made domestically, rather than in China.
In this regard, it is worth remembering that many of today’s China saber-rattlers were yesterday’s architects and intellectual underwriters of Ohio’s dispossession via trade: Think only of Chris DeMuth, the former president of the arch-neoliberal American Enterprise Institute, now moonlighting as a “national conservative.”
As for Taiwan’s semiconductor manufacturing capacity, there is no law of nature dictating that chips should be made on a small, threatened island located in China’s linguistic and civilizational sphere; semiconductors don’t grow on trees or lurk deep underground like oil and gas. Rather, the concentration of semiconductor industries in Taiwan is itself another result of US elites butchering and selling America’s manufacturing sector for scrap. To a true American nationalist—not the DeMuth kind—American dependence on Taiwanese manufacturing is a strong argument for reshoring industry, but not much else.
Yet from the perspective of liberal imperialists (including those who have reinvented themselves as nationalist hawks), the fate of this island of 23 million people matters more than the world. Taiwan is relevant not because it is central to American life, nor because of its semiconductors, but because the American Empire has staked out a line in the sand, warning China, “Do not cross.”
If Washington sees that line crossed, and Beijing’s rulers reclaiming a wayward province they have been angry about ever since the end of their civil war, then that is about as big a challenge to US hegemony as you can get. Either a military defeat or a walkover will send the same signal: The American Empire is in terminal decline, and its ability to force its will on others can now be dismissed with ease.
I’m less interested in taking a side here. It is up to American conservatives to decide which of the two approaches is the right one. The important thing is to recognize that there are two contradictory perspectives, and those who would elide the difference are almost invariably trying to sell you something. The interests of the Turkish people and those of the Ottoman Empire weren’t the same by the 19th century, during the empire’s “Sick Man” phase; for the one (Turkey) to win, the other (the empire) had to lose. Something similar might be said about the tension between American imperial ambition and renascent American nationalism today.
The latest National Conservative conference in Brussels nicely illustrated the contradiction snugly ensconced at the heart of the right. The European right, just as the American right, has had a fairly long streak of answering “yes” to questions that imply an either/or. Russia’s war over Ukraine has made that impossible, and as a result, it has become difficult to distinguish between a “populist” right-winger and a neoliberal Brussels mandarin.
Before the war, Hungary and Poland seemingly stood shoulder-to-shoulder, at least in the minds of foreign observers. In those days, you could answer the question “Hungary or Poland?” with a simple yes. Now, Hungary has been iced out of the Visegrád Group, its premier, Viktor Orbán, coming under concerted attack from his erstwhile nationalist allies for looking out for the interests of Hungarians, rather than sacrificing his own economy on the altar of liberal international order or the “European project.”
What happened to Visegrád will, in the not-too-distant future, transpire on the American right. The interests of empire, liberalism, “rules-based world order,” or any other airy abstraction you consider important will, sooner or later, diverge from the interests of Americans in the here and now. Whether such a split is desirable is completely besides the point; it isn’t something that can be avoided simply by wishing it away. As the political sage Pete Seeger sang: Which side are you on, boys, which side are you on?