PATRICK LAWRENCE: Empire with a Human Face

The Biden people are unlikely to speak of a new cold war with China, but they appear likely to wage one all dressed up as a sophisticated trans–Pacific strategy.

A portion of China’s Great Wall at dawn. (Hao Wei, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

By Patrick Lawrence
Special to Consortium News

Those boneheaded Trump people explained their hostile, xenophobic, fated-to-fail policy toward China by telling  the rest of Asia that America stood for “a free and open Indo–Pacific.”

No, no and no, say the big shots President-elect Joe Biden has named to shape and execute his foreign policy. Instead, they mean to tell Asians to line up behind their hostile, xenophobic, fated-to-fail policy toward China in the name of “a secure and prosperous Indo–Pacific.”

Way different.

It is simply remarkable to watch as the party that howled in response to everything the Trump regime attempted on the foreign-policy side adopts one Trump-era strategy after another more or less intact but for the cosmetics.

The sin of those egregious hawks who commandeered the outgoing regime was to conduct the business of empire imperially. This new crew offers what we had better recognize now as nothing more than empire with a human face.

Of all the Biden regime’s failures in the making one can already see in prospect that none will be greater than its insistence that the U.S. must continue to treat China as a predatory competitor and strategic adversary.

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As Mike Pompeo failed to enlist Asians in his crusade against the mainland — and our baboon secretary of state has flopped spectacularly, if you have not noticed — so will Antony Blinken, his successor at State, and Jake Sullivan, Biden’s nominee for national security adviser. 

This is going to be one long, astonishing display of that worst of combinations: ignorance alloyed with arrogance. One can hope only that it turns out to be more farce than tragedy.

Pompeo’s Signature Mistake

It was among Pompeo’s signature mistakes when he and his allies in racist-tinged paranoia juiced up the anti–China themes over the past couple of years. It will prove a yet-bigger and more consequential error as Blinken, Sullivan, et al. follow this line more or less uncritically over the next four.

The fundamental impediment here is blindness. Hardly is this a new shortcoming among Washington’s policy cliques. But the price America pays for it across the Pacific now stands to get much higher, in my view. 

The U.S. has been pressing Pacific Rim nations since the early years of the Obama presidency to choose a side in the confrontation with China that Washington has so assiduously conjured. These efforts have never gotten very far for the simple reason that Asians — who can read maps, believe it or not — have no desire to choose sides. They do not recognize “sides” as the way to look at circumstances at their end of the Pacific.  

Pompeo, who overplayed every hand he was dealt during his years at State, severely exacerbated this sharp, but obscured contradiction by way of his obsessive ravings against China. In consequence, China is very likely to prove a decisive question for the U.S. and its traditional trans–Pacific alliances over the next four years.

U.S. statement on maritime claims in the South China Sea, July 16, 2020. (U.S. State Department, Flickr)

Watch this space, for we could witness some interesting history. Play the China question the wrong way, and Biden’s foreign policy people will alienate even Washington’s most compliant clients in the western Pacific — disrupting relationships that have endured since the early 1950s.

This is a salutary prospect, I should add: Asians are coming to understand that their interests no longer coincide (if ever they did) with those of an empire rather desperately trying to turn back the clock.   

Blinken & Sullivan 

Blinken and Sullivan were making the wrong noises even before Biden announced his intention to name them to senior national-security positions. Along with nearly everyone else in Washington, they both think the decades following the Nixon–Kissinger opening were a disappointment because China did not become a “just-like-us” democracy. As to the post–Deng years of economic interdependence and a workable if uneasy equilibrium on the security side, they were an immense mistake.

Here is Blinken addressing the right-wing Hudson Institute last summer:

“There is a growing consensus across parties that China poses a series of new challenges and that the status quo was really not sustainable. We are in a competition with China, and there’s nothing wrong with competition, if it’s fair.”

Competition over cooperation: This is Blinken’s take. He wants to talk to Asians about “values” and democracy promotion and teamwork — polite code for the usual do-it-our-way policies exceptionalists like Blinken and Sullivan unfailingly marshal.

Memo to Blinken: Asians have “values” of their own and take no interest whatsoever in our ideological red lines. They also respect each other’s sovereignty, have a lot of time for the principle of nonalignment, and think interfering in the internal affairs of other nations is a crude Western practice.    

Here is Sullivan, a “global leadership” man head-to-toe, sharing a byline in Foreign Affairs a year ago with Kurt Campbell, a prominent Asianist: 

“There is a growing consensus that the era of engagement with China has come to an unceremonious close.”

No more “engaging.” It is confronting time.

Sclerotic Foreign Policy

The flaky notion that is supposed to distinguish this kind of thing from Pompeo’s mad-dog tactics is that we propose to tell the Chinese we truly want to coexist with them in the Pacific, we really, really do, and they ought not mind that we treat them as a threat inimical to our interests.

This is the kind of sloppy thinking you get from a sclerotic foreign policy establishment that has not had to make a serious judgment in 75 years of American primacy in the Pacific. The Biden people are unlikely ever to speak of a new cold war, but they appear very likely to wage one all dressed up as a sophisticated new trans–Pacific strategy.

Washington can follow this road for another four years — more if it so wishes. But it is going to become increasingly evident that it will travel it alone. Tony Kevin, a former Australian ambassador, published a piece in Consortium News a week ago explaining how the (rather huge) hawkish contingent in Canberra has run Australia’s relationship with China straight into the ground. You can bet the farm that East Asians are tskking now, as they watch Australia subvert its long-term interests.

From the clerks serving the foreign policy cliques, quaintly known as journalists, we read the same-old, same-old boilerplate as Team Trump passes the baton to Team Biden. Josh Rogin, a Washington Post columnist, wrote an interesting, finger-in-the-wind piece in this line just after Xi Jinping sent the president-elect a congratulatory note.

The Chinese leader urged Biden to “uphold the spirit of nonconflict, nonconfrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.” An honorable suggestion, I would say.

Joe Biden, as vice president, left, with President Barack Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping, 2012. (White House, Pete Souza)

“This is standard Chinese Communist Party doublespeak,” the ever-conformist, never-original Rogin barked. Those sneaky Chinese never say what they mean and are never to be trusted. This tells us what we need to know about the climate in Washington as Biden’s people prepare to take office: The air is befouled. (Memo to Rogin: More practice. Trafficking in Hearst-style “yellow peril” requires a subtler hand.)

If the incoming regime’s inability to see clearly as it looks across the Pacific is especially evident at this moment, it is not enough to conclude that Biden and his people inherit this defect from the Trump regime. We can date America’s blindness to Admiral Dewey’s arrival in Manila Bay in 1898 at the start of the Spanish–American War. Fifty-six years later America took over the war against the Vietnamese after the French were routed at Diên Biên Phu. Blind again.

Beneath the blindness lies indifference — indifference to who Asians are and what their aspirations may be. In the former case, Americans grossly, cruelly betrayed the Filipino independence movement. The betrayal in the latter case requires no explanation.

I do not see that things are so different now, as Washington nurses its nostalgia for unchallenged primacy and tries forlornly to turn the entire region against the largest nation in it. Neither Blinken nor Sullivan evince any regard for Asians’ desire to live peaceably with China in — dare I say this? — a spirit of nonconflict, nonconfrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.

Both of these intellectual poseurs would have done well directing the campaigns against Aguinaldo’s liberation movement in the Philippines or the Vietnam War as members of the best and brightest.

Take comfort. Asians will never buy into the Biden regime’s plans to continue where Pompeo left off, old wine in a new bottle. Let us add No. 2 to our list of Foreign Policy Failures to come. Excellent. As things stand the more the better.

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a columnist, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. Follow him on Twitter @thefloutist. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon site. 

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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18 comments for “PATRICK LAWRENCE: Empire with a Human Face

  1. Jeff Harrison
    December 16, 2020 at 14:02

    Thank you Mr. Lawrence for using your 30 years in Asia to clarify our current situation. American behavior can be very confusing but it all becomes very clear when you realize that the US is trying to be the global hegemon and not everybody is buying into it. But it is as Putin said, Presidents come an go but he policy stays the same. In the long run, hegemony will not be a winning strategy for the US, the world’s largest debtor.

  2. December 16, 2020 at 01:33

    I would be appalled at that bland interview with Blinken but it is sufficiently challenged by Lawrence’s article. The interviewer does not challenge Blinken in any way but porobably he never intended to do this. They sail elegantly over everything that is really happening. Venezuela is passed over avoiding all specific policies and attitudes.The USA once tried to oust Erdoigan, unsuccessfully. Blinken carries on about democracy when it is not being meaningfully practised in the USA.. Apart from having a population that is not mature enough to knoiw what it is doing, the Oligarchs mainain their rigid rule, election fraud, voter purging, is practised on all sides. American politics – and not only theirs – have become a grotesque horror show, in which, if you disagree with so-called democrats, you are called a Putin pupoet and if you critcise israel you are called an anti-semite – to quote only two of the typical knowingly false smears , mindlessly repeated. The machinery of lying prevails everywhere. The interview is a dsigusting cover up of cynical criminality. Thank goodness for Consortium News.

  3. Fernando Carrizo
    December 15, 2020 at 19:17

    According to Patrick Lawrence, “Asians … respect each other’s sovereignty … and think interfering in the internal affairs of other nations is a crude Western practice.”
    There are 48 countries in Asia, so it’s very unlikely that all of them abide by the stringent standards Lawrence lists. Furthermore, although I am no authority on Asia, I can mention offhand at least three countries that routinely interfere in the internal affairs of neighboring countries, to wit, China, Pakistan and Iran. China began its habit of violating other countries’ sovereignty at least as far back as the 1950s, when it began meddling in internal Indonesian affairs, and then in 1962 invaded India apparently on a whim. Furthermore China has reduced Cambodia to a colony and shamelessly stripped it of its forests. Chinese imperialism is not only every bit as vile as US imperialism, but even more so, so it lacks independent courts and business transparency. In 1979 it invaded Vietnam, more recently it has tried to annex large stretches of the South China Sea … I could go on and on.

      December 15, 2020 at 22:57

      “Chinese imperialism is not only every bit as vile as US imperialism, but even more so,”

      This is a ludicrous statement. How many overseas bases does China have, compared to the US? It has 4 compared to around 800 US bases. How many nations has China fully invaded and occupied like the US has done in Vietnam and Iraq? Zero. The last Chinese intervention was in 1979 and that was a border war with Vietnam, as was the 1962 border conflict with India.

  4. bevin
    December 15, 2020 at 17:51

    Australia is not alone in this, Canada is equally culpable: it has been provoking China for no better reason than to suck up to Uncle Sam, for years. And, like Australia, it is sacrificing enormous economic opportunities by doing so.
    Right now Canada is awash with sinophobia of which the most virulent elements are supplied by the liberals who used to pretend to be of the left. Just as they urged the invasion of Haiti (now entering its sixteenth year of NATO sponsored dictatorship) in order to restore elections (there hasn’t been a fair one since) so they are urging economic warfare against China on the grounds that its anti-terrorism programmes, in Xinjiang-the launching pad for tens of thousands of wahhabi militiamen- are not very nice. Meanwhile: Guantanamo Bay, Palestine and countless other enormities, all of which Canada actually could repair, it it tried, go unmentioned.

  5. jdd
    December 15, 2020 at 17:44

    Mr. Lawrence has “spilled the beans” regarding the illusion of a saner policy toward China coming from Joe Biden, who is assembling a war cabinet, with eyes toward Russia as well. Going back several decades, to the time of a dominant US economy, the Kissinger overtures were mainly an attempt to recruit Mao into an alliance against the Soviets. However, following the disastrous Cultural Revolution, China’s leadership decided to accept the outsourcing of Western manufacturing with the understanding that it would be a bittersweet pill. While London and Wall Street saw China simply as a huge source of cheap labor, the Chinese leadership had something else in mind. Rather than continuing in the perpetual role of the world’s sweatshop, China used its foreign exchange earnings to massively build modern infrastructure, manufacturing, and beautiful new cities, and has surged ahead in many areas of science and engineering, such as high speed train technology, nuclear fusion R&D, and space exploration. It is already both the world’s largest economy and exporter. Yet, despite the fact that it has gone to great lengths to avoid confrontations with the US, by refusing to accept assigned to it by the financial oligarchy, and even launching the Belt and Road Initiative to internationalize its approach, “China, China, China,” has replaced “Russia, Russia, Russia,”as the greatest threat to the dying Anglo-American Empire.

    • Frank Munley
      December 16, 2020 at 08:55

      Rest assured, China has not replaced Russia as a target. Imperialistic hubris knows no limits, and Biden Democrats will continue Trump’s anti-China efforts and also continue to bash Russia and expand NATO, the latter goal to be crowned by getting Ukraine in NATO. Continuing provocations of Russia, including Trump’s opposition to Russia’s Nordstream 2, is most dangerous. People are too quick to suppress legitimate fears about nuclear war which will destroy civilization as we know it.

  6. December 15, 2020 at 14:37

    I suspect Australia will come to its senses because it is in its self-interest.
    There are some folks and some places out there who are not to be dealt with trivially because they mean serious business.
    If you let a snake wrap around you then you are at the snake’s mercy, but I’ll tell you from personal experience that it is easy to move a snake to another place. One time when I did this there was an owl watching from an elevated position in a tree. I let the snake go, but I think the owl ate it and as far as I’m concerned – good for the owl. I hope it was a good meal.
    If Australia has any backbone they will tell the US of A to shove it.
    Otherwise, they will go the way of those other entities who had no spine. It will be as if they can’t even think for themselves. As if they have no ability to make a choice on their own. Like a puppet.
    Nice article. Thanks.

  7. Jim Thomas
    December 15, 2020 at 14:08

    The author is certainly right to observe that the advisers chosen by Biden so far as foreign policy advisors are extremist neocon war mongers and to conclude that there is no reason for optimism about an improvement in U.S. foreign policy under Biden’s leadership.

    As is common with criticisms of U.S. foreign policy, the author says that the continuation on this disastrous but well traveled road is due to “blindness” on the part of policy makers. I part company with the author on that point. Although there may be some “true believers” in this course of action, it cannot be sold to the public on that basis. To sell these piles of excrement to the public as “necessary and urgent” matters there must a convincing demonization of the chosen enemy. Hence, the “red scare” following WWII and continuing until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Thereafter, the U.S. elites were pretty desperate to find adequate new “enemies” which would enable them to sell the need to spend trillions of dollars on the weapons with which to fight the bad guys. It got so bad that they had to resort to the “war on drugs” as the best pretext they had for these outrageous expenditures, much of which is simply stolen via cost plus contracts with the war contractors. So now we have the revival of Russia as the new all over again enemy, together with the revival of the yellow peril as the new new enemy. Well, pre Nixon, it was the enemy but we didn’t recognize it, much less talk to it. Obama had his “pivot to Asia”, a hostile act against China combined with the customary demonization of China with outright falsehoods, aided, of course, by the compliant mainstream media. Trump’s brief flirt with making nice with Russia was quickly put to rest by the outrage of the Democrats and establishment Republicans and the deep state. Trump then fell into line and did his usual clumsy job of threatening and insulting both Russia and China. So now we have Biden about to assume the helm. What is his attitude about China? Rather than describe it, I suggest watching this short clip of Biden’s comments at one of the Presidential debates:


    Finally, to my point. There is much more to selling the current pile of excrement to the public than a “blindness” on the part of policy makers. In this short clip, Biden is repeating some of the outright falsehoods used to demonize China and convince the public that China is now our enemy and that we simply must do whatever is necessary to defend ourselves from this evil state. The U.S. is, as always, portrayed as blameless, a victim of evil done by others. The opposite is true. This Country is the troublemaker and hostile actor.

    In closing, I think it is worthwhile to observe that, in addition to needing a justification for continuing to waste trillions of dollars for the benefit of the war contractors (and the politicians who receive the bribe money from them), there is another reason why it is expeditious to pick this fight with China, viz. that China is kicking our capitalist behinds by drastically improving the living standards of its people. In this Country, thanks to the neoliberal economic policies which have prevailed for the last forty years, the standard of living for everyone except for the well to do has declined significantly. The reason for this disparity is that China uses its resources for the benefit of the people whereas in this Country most of the resources are allocated to the 1%. The politicians certainly cannot afford to explain this disparity in an honest way, so they invent a narrative which can be reconciled with the facts, e.g. China’s success is due to the fact that it “cheats” some way or another. Other rationale are invented, e.g. China’s alleged mistreatment of Uighurs, repeated by Biden in his debate statement. So here we go again. Bush and Chaney fabricated the story about weapons of mass destruction. Now it is Biden’s time to make up reasons why China, Russia, Venezuela, Iran, etc. are existential threats to us. This is not blindness. It is madness. And two of the present countries on the enemies list have nuclear weapons. Not blindness. Madness, irresponsibility, stupidity. Let us recognize that this course of action is not soley due to blindness or ignorance. It also requires telling some whopping lies. And Biden is ready and willing to do just that.

  8. Babyl-on
    December 15, 2020 at 12:16

    I just see it as an analytical mistake to associate imperial policy to any one individual, there is no “Biden” foreign policy or Obama, there is imperial policy carried out by them to hide the actual imperial power held by oligarchs from around the Western world, it is not a US empire it is the culmination of all the European empires into one hegemonic power faction. It was like a Wall Street industry consolidation, the French, Spanish etc. empires brought under one roof. This all began around 1350 and has continued non stopped since, not a day has passed when some Western empire was not killing innocent people for personal power usually in several places.

    WE are the people, the civilization, the culture which slaughtered virtually all the human population on three continents in, by far, the largest genocide in human history.

  9. jo6pac
    December 15, 2020 at 10:58

    Well biden did say nothing going to change.

    • kiers
      December 15, 2020 at 20:23

      politics so poor quality……..shysterism and noise.

  10. December 15, 2020 at 04:06

    Americans easily forget, or some do not understand, that their country is not just a country. It is a global empire, a rather brutal one.

    It is certainly is not the Early Republic, a couple of centuries later.

    While Rome had good and bad emperors, the identity of the emperor never changed the underlying reality of empire. The Republic in “SPQR” was a sentimental notion of the past.

    Just so, America

  11. Moi
    December 15, 2020 at 02:00

    The US promulgated a new cold war with China and Australia enthusiastically signed-up. Then they wonder why China turns a cold shoulder in return.

    Morrison is a bona fide idiot.

  12. Tom Kath
    December 14, 2020 at 23:04

    Australia And China
    Our last moderately famous or internationally respected Prime Minister Paul Keating, said in 2018 that “The nutters are in charge now.”, meaning that the secret services intelligence agencies, notably the infamous “five eyes”, were directing and dictating the foreign policy of Australia now to an unprecedented and obscene extent. Lee Kuan Yew, the leader famously credited with the disproportionate success and significance of Singapore, also warned that “Australia risks becoming the white trash of Asia” with its delusional pretence of superiority backed by nothing more than this intelligence alliance.
    To go no further back than Paul Keating’s time, Australia was fairly universally acknowledged and indeed admired for its image as a multicultural society. This has since been steadily eroded to the recent extreme emergence of a distinctly ugly assertion of “white Christian privilege and supremacy”, not seen “since the blacks were bad”, as I have heard it euphemistically described. Australia is now, completely unprovoked and unnecessarily, making an enemy of not just China, but of the entire Asian region if not beyond.
    I take just our closest neighbour Indonesia as an example, since I have at least a tiny bit of first hand experience there. Vastly dwarfing Australia’s population by at least 15 or 20 times, it is in fact by quite some margin the world’s largest predominantly Muslim nation. Whilst Chinese people are periodically persecuted there, my experience and information is that the Chinese population in Indonesia is predominantly Christian, and they are persecuted for their Christian business practices rather than for their Chinese origins. On a national political level there is no dissent or major dispute between Indonesia and China. Although Australia’s recent confrontation with China has overshadowed any reports of the Indonesian perspective, we can safely assume that it will be quite hostile to this assertion of White Christian privilege and superiority.
    Given that White Christians are a rapidly diminishing minority in the world, it does not take a very focussed looking glass to understand the relative wisdom of Keating and Lee, as well as the folly of these outrageously hubristic “5 eyes” assertions.

    • December 15, 2020 at 15:19


      • Tom Kath
        December 15, 2020 at 23:41

        Thank you PETER, but I must confess that I am actually extremely biased against secret services in general, and the 5 eyes agenda in particular.

  13. December 14, 2020 at 20:11

    The anti China crew in Australia exist in both the Liberal National Party coalition government and the Australian Labor Party opposition. Members of both parties are walking around scratching their heads wondering why all of a sudden the Chinese have placed tariffs on a range of Australian exports and stopped buying other products. China is by far Australia’s biggest trading nation and the Chinese have reacted to the government’s uncritical support of the US call for an enquiry into the origin of Covid, the island dispute in the Sth China sea and criticism of human rights in China. The only sure thing is that both parties will continue to follow the new Biden rationale for confronting China.

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