In an August interview with The American Prospect, then White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon said that the United States is “at economic war with China. It’s in all their literature. They’re not shy about saying what they’re doing. One of us is going to be a hegemon in 25 or 30 years and it’s gonna be them if we go down this path.” If the United States continues to lose the economic war, Bannon said, “we’re five years away, I think, ten years at the most, of hitting an inflection point from which we’ll never be able to recover.” Seemingly in line with these comments, U.S. President Donald Trump, who campaigned on an agenda of economic nationalism, has launched investigations into Chinese intellectual property theft that could lead to U.S. tariffs on Chinese imports. At the same time, however, U.S. officials have sought to win Beijing’s cooperation in taming an increasingly belligerent North Korea.
The Trump administration’s mood swings on China—viewing it sometimes as a threat to U.S. preeminence and sometimes as a valuable partner—are nothing new. Indeed, as the George Washington University historian Gregg Brazinsky shows in his timely new book, Winning the Third World: Sino-American Rivalry During the Cold War, Washington has long feared that “China will spread a model of political and economic development that will fundamentally undermine the liberal international order that the United States seeks to uphold.”
Winning the Third World examines how China and the United States competed with each other during the mid-twentieth century for influence among postcolonial nations. More fundamentally, Beijing and Washington sparred over the structure of the postcolonial international order itself. Following the wave of decolonization after World War II, Maoist China was determined to establish itself as first among equals in an independent Afro-Asian bloc of countries, an ambition that the United States, newly powerful and secure in its standing among postcolonial countries, was determined to thwart.
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