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Why America Only Pretends to Compete With China


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Tablet Magazine

When it comes to Ukraine, Washington seems to be running two parallel but incompatible policy simulations. As the war drags on, and the minds of most Americans wander elsewhere, it’s getting harder to figure out which simulation we’re actually living in.

In the first, Washington is engaged in a hard-nosed traditional “great power competition” with Moscow and Beijing. Facing Chinese-backed Russian expansion on NATO’s eastern frontier, the United States has responded with enlightened but tough-minded realism by freezing Russia’s central bank assets, providing Ukraine with weapons, and labeling Vladimir Putin a war criminal, even as it continues to blacklist Chinese companies, sanction Chinese officials, ban imports from Xinjiang, and build and strengthen alliances—NATO, AUKUS, the Quad, Five Eyes.

In the second simulation, by contrast, Washington doesn’t appear to be engaged in much strategic rivalry at all. The United States is still importing petroleum products from Russia, exempting Russian banks from sanctions, withholding certain heavy offensive weapons from Ukraine, pleading with Beijing for help with Moscow, overlooking reports of Chinese cyberattacks on Ukrainian military facilities, and insisting, against all evidence, that Xi Jinping doesn’t support Putin’s war.

The fact that both simulations seem to be playing out simultaneously within the White House does not by itself suggest differing policy approaches or levels of conflict-avoidance among administration officials. Nor does it necessarily imply a concerted effort at deception. From one perspective, at least, it simply emphasizes the tendency of national press coverage to toe official lines without much equivalent attention to real-world outcomes. Far more media attention has been devoted to the idea that the West is united behind an “unprecedented” anti-Russia sanctions regime, for example, than the fact that the sanctions quite obviously aren’t working (and that sanctions against Serbia and Iraq were in many ways more severe). Europe is still sending Putin 800 million euros a day in energy payments, and since the war started, prices for Russia’s main exports—oil, gas, coal, copper, fertilizers, precious metals, wheat—have skyrocketed, producing windfall gains for Moscow’s war machine. President Joe Biden’s open speculation about regime change, trying Putin for war crimes, and seizing his minions’ yachts has served little purpose other than to obscure the strength of the ruble, the ongoing flow of hard Western currency revenues to the Kremlin, and the ugly truth that the war is going badly for Ukraine.

The gap between perception and reality is even wider when it comes to China. A U.S. sanctions regime that now includes not only Huawei and forced labor but semiconductors and cross-border data and capital flows has given the impression of a united Washington girded for decades of bipartisan competition with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But it’s hard to square talk about Cold War 2.0 with the reality that U.S. firms have in fact been increasing investment in Chinese semiconductor companies and accelerating gas and coal exports to China. While the U.S. Navy continues to serve as the security detail for Chinese oil imports from the Persian Gulf, U.S. elites advocate for a transition to renewable energy technologies dominated by Chinese supply chains and commodity inputs. When the American hedge fund BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, told investors last fall to triple their exposure to China, it was an expression of confidence that Washington has no intention of making good on threats to seriously restrict outbound investment into China. And BlackRock would know.:snip:

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