John Keane | One world, two empires: Is China-US conflict inevitable?
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One world, two empires: Is China-US conflict inevitable?

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Washington and Beijing may not admit it, but the truth is our planet, for the first time ever, is in the sway of two globally entangled empires. Does this brave new era need more ‘cold warriors’ – or an open-minded approach

By John Keane and Kerry Brown

We live in discordant times marked by a strange but striking fact: despite visible signs of waning American global power and the birth of a strident global China, few people dare openly use the word empire. It is as if things cannot be called by their proper name.

In China, public talk of empire (dìguó) remains rare. It is a pejorative term directed at others; the word is almost never applied to China itself. State officials and media platforms instead emphasise past victimhood (‘the century of humiliation’) at the hands of Western imperialism. In a case of unexpected symmetry, in the United States, the word empire also triggers embarrassed silence. Americans regard themselves as a benign global power, as a democratic force for good. Former defence secretary under George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, said it clearly: “We don’t seek empires, we’re not imperialistic. We never have been.” His words could just as easily have come from the mouths of contemporary Chinese leaders.


Donald Rumsfeld didn’t like the word ‘empire’. Photo: AFP

But if by empire we mean a jumbo-sized state that exercises political, economic and symbolic power over millions of people, at great distances from its own heartlands, without much regard or respect for the niceties of sovereignty, then technically both the United States and China are empires. Our planet is falling under the sway of two global empires. Measured in GDP terms, for instance, the American economy currently yields a third of world output. In such fields as telecommunications, pharmaceuticals and aerospace, its global corporations set the pace. McDonald’s, Google, Apple and Facebook are globally influential cultural brands. The US is commander-in-chief of the global war on terror. It has military bases and installations in 130 countries. It currently spends more on weapons than the next seven countries combined.


McDonald’s: cultural behemoth. Photo: Winson Wong

China’s global reach is meanwhile spreading fast. Unusually, the new Chinese empire is deeply entangled with the US and its partners. Beijing-financed mega-projects are reordering the lives of many millions of people, from South Africa, Nigeria and Sri Lanka to Cambodia, Chile and Hungary. The Communist Party-state economy has outflanked the US as the world’s largest trading nation. It is now Africa’s biggest trading partner and rivals the US in Latin America, where Chinese investment, extraction of resources and trade jumped tenfold in the first decade of this century.

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Military expenditure is mushrooming (the PLA has enjoyed two decades of double-digit budget growth) while in recent times China has helped build and now leads more than 20 new multilateral institutions founded on pragmatic consent, not formal treaty alliances.


China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, in Hong Kong waters. China’s military has enjoyed two decades of double-digit budget growth. Photo: AFP

It’s important to grasp just how unique these trends are. Empires with a genuinely global footprint are rare. Whatever their visions of world conquest, the territorial reach of the Mongols, Muslims, Ottomans, Ming dynasty and British and other European empires was geographically limited. For the first time, during the years of bi-polarity (1945 – 89), two relatively detached global empires vied for world dominance. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US tried to do something no empire had ever done: to exercise hegemony over the whole planet alone. It failed. So now it has to deal with the realities of spreading Chinese power. The upshot is that our planet, for the first time in human history, is shadowed by two globally entangled empires marked by different intentions and practices.


President Xi Jinping meets US counterpart Donald Trump in Beijing. Photo: AP

The novelty is perplexing, which is why so many pundits and politicians in the US, or sympathetic to the US, are now peddling warnings of an imminent Chinese takeover of the world. Some are sharpening their swords. They want a new cold war to sort out which empire is in charge. Their first move is to stir up public sentiments against what they call the “authoritarianism” or “totalitarianism” of the existing Party-led regime. Beyond the borders of China, they see acts of silent espionage and systematic takeovers of businesses, governments, universities, newspapers, churches and various civil society bodies. They warn of threats to “sovereignty” and the coming end of “liberal democracy”.


There is some validity in these warnings. They remind us that empires are never angels on Earth because their mission is always to change the balance of power in their own favour. Just like the US, China has its fellow traveller intellectuals, propaganda media, front organisations, lobbyists and dark money peddlers. The pundits also help to bury the hubristic “end of history” presumption that the strategy of containment and engagement with China would ultimately ensure that it became just like America: a capitalist “liberal democracy”.

China has outflanked the US as the world’s largest trading nation. Photo: Reuters

This new cold war rhetoric nevertheless has definite downsides. It understates the irreversible entanglement and cooperation of the two empires. Its sense of history of empires, and China’s role in rethinking the whole subject, masterfully analysed in John Darwin’s After Tamerlane (2007), is feeble. Get-tough-with-China talk attracts racists and Orientalists; in effect, it functions as a cry of pain from within “the West” and a call to stay on top of the world. The rhetoric relies heavily on stock phrases such as “liberal democracy” and “authoritarianism”. Seemingly unaware that it might well reinforce the emperor trends in today’s China and the US, the rhetoric is strikingly silent about the current disfiguring of power-sharing democracy within its heartlands. The less palatable side of the American empire (repeated military invasions in the name of democracy, repeated failures) is typically ignored. Worst of all, simplification and wilful ignorance about the daily life and complex and kaleidoscopic political dynamics of China are commonplace.

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For all these reasons, the time has come to call things by their correct name, to see that a new era of two entangled global empires requires more honest working precepts. China bashing and American love affairs are both unhelpful. Talk of military aggression and war even more so. There is no Thucydides trap – the idea that conflict is almost inevitable when a rising power challenges the established one, à la Athens and Sparta – except in the heads of the new cold warriors.

The dynamic re-balancing of power between the US and China, especially in the Asia Pacific region, is a priority, along with the need for continuing positive cooperation in such fields as scientific research, higher education and renewable energy.


Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd: on to something? Photo: Reuters

Dynamic cooperation is bound to have its ups and downs. It requires frank exchanges between Western and Chinese partners in every field. Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was on to something: when it comes to dealing with the US, China and their allies and opponents, he liked to say, truly durable friendships (zhèng yǒu) are built on frankness, unflinching advice and awareness of fundamental interests and future visions.

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Simple presumptions about the ethical and practical superiority of American-style liberal democracy need to be rethought. Far better to give priority to the daunting and complex political task of cleaning the Augean stables of actually existing democracies, more than a few of which (Brazil, India, Britain, the US) are in a parlous condition. Above all, what is needed badly is an opening of minds, a new willingness among political thinkers, journalists, citizens and politicians to dissect their own ignorance about China, to craft fresh ways of thinking that enable all of us to see that the realities of the new Chinese empire are far more confusing, complicated and contradictory than many of its critics have so far supposed.

John Keane is Professor of Politics at The University of Sydney, and Kerry Brown is director of the Lau China Institute, King’s College, London

Originally published on The South China Morning Post

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