United States-China Relations

In one of his most recent articles, Immanuel Wallerstein returns to a theme he has previously addressed: He argues that the two great powers, the United States and China, will become strategic partners. His analysis is solid and deserves respect, as does all his work. In addition, however, it has the enormous advantage that although it is not innovative, it does put forward arguments that are not the same as the ones he has made for a long time.

Wallerstein maintains that the main reason for the current disagreement is over which of the countries will be the senior partner, and which the junior partner, in the future and inevitable alliance. He doesn’t doubt that China is becoming the new global hegemonic power, but he argues that it is doomed to be understood as a power in decline, just as Great Britain and the United States were understood after 1945.

He argues that an informal alliance can be formed, an undeclared association, like the one between the Soviet Union and the United States after the Yalta accords (February 1945), in which they tacitly divided up the zones of influence in the postwar world. In later works, Wallerstein maintained that after a period of hegemonic transition in the world, two important alliances will be established: China and the United States on one side, and Europe and Russia on the other.

In this sense, it is worth the trouble to listen to a prominent strategist, Russian president Vladimir Putin, who defends the euro despite the current crisis, and who recently argued that quite possibly, Russia will be integrated into the eurozone. It is necessary to remember that Washington’s offensive against Russia, in particular over the crisis and regime change in Ukraine, is intended to block closer ties between Moscow and Brussels.

Without going so far as to disagree with the analysis of someone I consider an undeniable inspiration, I would like to expound on a few problems that might change the direction in which Wallerstein is pointing us, and perhaps obstruct or slow down alliances like this that could come to predominate in a new post-capitalist world.

The first and most important relates to the colonial legacy. Previous hegemonic transitions were among Western powers. From the first hegemony in the world system, that of Holland, until the U.S. hegemony, they have all been countries that are a part of the same civilization, in the sense that Egyptian sociologist Anwar Abdel-Malek (cited by Wallerstein) used the term. Abdel-Malek maintained that there are only two civilizations, the Indo-Aryan and the Chinese.

We can surmise that a non-Western hegemony would shock the racist and colonialist traditions and cultures of the West. To the competition between nation-states and business enterprises, which was decisive in the previous transitions, are now added factors that were absent in those disputes. We can’t know to what extent racism and colonialism will be able to modify the predicted historical trajectory, but it is evident that it will carry some weight; the birth and development of capitalism over the past five centuries has shown that.

The same remark about China and the Asia-Pacific region would raise the question of whether Beijing aspires to world hegemony; it would be very much like following in the footsteps of European and Western colonialism/capitalism. It might happen, but it’s not certain that it will turn out this way. What is certain is that China will not permit a new humiliation, like those suffered at the hands of England and France in the 19th century and at the hands of Japan in the 20th century. All its energy as an emerging power will go towards safeguarding its national sovereignty.

The second question to consider is the role of civil society organizations, or popular movements. The founders of world-systems theory, Wallerstein, Giovanni Arrighi and Terence Hopkins, attribute the divergence between the crisis that began in 1973 and previous crises to the important role that workers played in the explosion of the current crisis. Beyond the points of difference in their analyses, the conclusion seems clear that, with regard to the groundswell of activism of the 1960s, we have been facing an acceleration in social history.

While in previous hegemonic crises involving an escalation of the rivalry among the great powers, the rivalry preceded and laid the foundation for the intensification of the social conflict, in the crisis in U.S. hegemony, the intensification of the social conflict preceded and completely structured the rivalry. (See, Arrighi and Beverly J. Silver ed., “Chaos and Governance in the Modern World System,” University of Minnesota Press, 1999.)

Some will remark that I’ve cited this phrase before. But to me, it seems necessary to remember, over and over again, that the current crisis was created by the struggles of those below. That conviction has to give us enough moral strength to confront the storm that those above are raining down on us in response. It is the first time in history that those resisting from below are structuring nothing less than a systemic crisis. That explains the reaction of the United States and big business, and even governments like those we are enduring, particularly in the case of Mexico.

Can we imagine the Mexican genocide against the young, women, indigenous peoples, the poor in general, without thinking about it as preventive class warfare? The dominant class in Mexico has suffered two popular revolutions in the country’s short history; that has made them much more cautious and, above all, more ruthless.

Without rejecting the analysis of the “Wallerstein telescope” (a nickname created by Subcommander Galeano*), I think that colonialism/racism and the power of the lower classes should convince us to consider the enormous complexity of the transition now underway. That complexity could lead China in the direction of, in effect, making an alliance with the declining power in order to avoid greater evils. But nothing is for certain.

*Translator’s note: Subcommander Galeano is a political and military leader in the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN, from its Spanish initials) in Chiapas, Mexico.

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