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China and the American Lake


CHINA THREAT by Luo Jie. Credit: Xinhua, “Fact check on Pompeo’s speech,” China Daily, September 04, 2020.

Mark Tseng-Putterman is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

“The power that rules the Pacific…is the power that rules the world.”

Senator Albert Beveridge, January 9, 19001

“The United States is and always has been an Indo-Pacific nation.… A free and open Indo-Pacific depends on robust American leadership.”

National Security Agency director Robert O’Brien, 20202

U.S. fantasies of expansion, commercial dominion, and military prowess have long hinged on a premise of Pacific exceptionalism. Couched in the millenarian language of manifest destiny, the Pacific region and its multitudinous ecosystems, cultures, peoples, and nations have been vacated in favor of an aqua nullius that frames the region as an empty space designated for U.S. possession by divine providence.

This manufactured Pacific idea—what David Palumbo-Liu describes as a “repository of the American imaginary”—has borne many names.3 Amid the nineteenth-century annexation of Hawai‘i and the colonization of the Philippines, politician Whitelaw Reid heralded the ultimate conversion of the Pacific into an “American Lake.”4 At the height of his stature as Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in 1949, Douglas MacArthur described the militarized region as an “Anglo-Saxon lake.”5 During the neoliberal “end of history” heralded by the collapse of the Soviet Union, it became the “Pacific Rim,” a space realizing the transcendence of deterritorialized finance and neoliberal capitalist hegemony.6

The arrival of the People’s Republic of China as a “strategic competitor” to U.S. hegemony structures the reemergence of the Pacific idea as the cornerstone of U.S. imperialist strategy. In the revised terminology of a renewed Cold War project, the civilizing mission of the nineteenth century has been transfigured into U.S. stewardship over a “free and open Indo-Pacific” under existential threat from illiberal foes. Under the aegis of this securitized regional concept, the United States runs warships through contested waters in the South China Sea, parades through the exclusive waters of ostensible allies without prior consent (as it did with India in April 2021), and couches the consolidation of U.S. military and commercial supremacy as a necessary defense against a “rising China.”7

The 2018 U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific, declassified by the Donald Trump administration’s national security advisor Robert O’Brien in 2021, makes clear the common-sense assumptions grounding U.S. strategy in the region. The document calls for the maintenance of U.S. “diplomatic, economic, and military preeminence” in what it describes as the world’s most populous and third-largest economic region. It warns that China is challenging the ability of the United States to achieve its “national objectives” in the region. It calls for means to ensure that the Pacific Islands “remain aligned with the United States.”8 The presuppositions of contemporary U.S. strategy inherit those that guided U.S. expansion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: the Pacific remains—discursively, geostrategically, commercially, and militarily—an “American lake.”

Yet as an enduring U.S. transpacific empire is redeployed and reconsolidated for a U.S. strategy locked in “great power competition” with China, both the historical specificity of U.S. regional imperialism and the Marxist critique of empire itself have receded from the frame of many Western left intellectuals and commentators who instead observe an “inter-imperial rivalry” between the United States and China. This popular framing decontextualizes the historic scope and durability of U.S. imperialism as the hegemonic logic of geopolitics in Asia and the Pacific, shunting aside the long history of U.S. transpacific hegemony in favor of language that affirms the U.S. militarized posture as “defensive” in the face of ostensible Chinese belligerence. It abandons a materialist analysis of how U.S. economic aggression on China seeks to maintain hegemonic core-periphery relations and a unidirectional flow of surplus value in favor of a lazy condemnation of “inter-capitalist competition.”9 Perhaps most nefariously, this false equivalence obscures the ways in which the centuries-long project of U.S. Pacific hegemony is being reconsolidated, operationalized, and expanded in service of a hostile Cold War posture toward China.

Despite the apparent “newness” of the return of China to the top of the U.S. foreign policy agenda, the U.S. state of permanent war in Asia and the Pacific today is in fact the inevitable product of a centuries-long project of U.S. hegemony in the Pacific. These ambitions required various tactics of empire: from settler colonialism in Hawai‘i to colonial war in the Philippines to the formation of an “open-door” empire in a fabled China market long heralded as the crown jewel of U.S. Pacific manifest destiny. Yet, despite China’s constitutive role in the articulation of U.S. transpacific expansion that deigned to tap the “El Dorado of commerce,” China has been rendered a lacuna within recent historiographies of U.S. empire. This essay attempts to address these theoretical gaps by reinserting China into a historical analysis of the evolution of U.S. imperialism and racial capitalism—a reframing that bears political urgency in a moment in which the “Indo-Pacific” reemerges as the primary theater of U.S. militarism, and China in particular emerges as the definitive “official enemy” around which the project of U.S. Pacific hegemony coheres.

“The Ocean Bride of America”: China and U.S. Transpacific Expansion

Moved by a sense of commercial necessity, geographic coincidence, and civilizational destiny, pursuit of China’s limitless markets has been a defining discourse of U.S. commercial ascendance and colonial expansion since the formation of the United States. This U.S. “China dream” is traceable to the motivating factors behind American independence itself: while the Boston Tea Party of 1773 has been taught as a story of brave patriots protesting British tyranny, it would be more accurately historicized as a merchant class conflict over the spoils of the China trade—a commercial protest over the British East India Company’s monopoly on the importation of tea, and the passage of the British Tea Act of 1773 that allowed the East India Company to import and sell tea directly in North America free of duties, essentially cutting out U.S. middlemen merchants who purchased tea in Great Britain to be imported and resold in the American colonies.10 This act of “independence,” then, was really about the insertion of U.S. merchants into a colonial trade that was increasingly relying on the illegal sale of opium. The China trade thus may be read into the formative genealogy of U.S. racial capitalism. As historians such as Geralde Horne have shown, the liberties sought by the American Revolution were really about securing the privileges of racial capitalism, in the form of U.S.-led expansion to the slave trade and colonial settlement of the continent absent British interference.11

Yet, unlike its European antecedents, the United States was compelled by its geography to “face west.” John Hay, the secretary of state under William McKinley, described the Pacific as a temporal horizon. “The Mediterranean,” Hay wrote, “is the ocean of the past, the Atlantic the ocean of the present, and the Pacific is the ocean of the future.”12 Securing commercial dominance in the Far East thus necessitated making use of the United States’s unique geography as a “Pacific power.” This commercial outlook helped structure the project of manifest destiny and the settler conquest of North America, which framed Pacific coast territories like Oregon and California as “windows to the Orient.” Upon the annexation of California in 1848, president James Polk heralded the value of ports like San Francisco, which would bear “an extensive and profitable commerce with China and other countries of the East.”13 Naval officer Robert Wilson Shufeldt, who led the U.S. expedition to Korea that marked the first Western treaty with the so-called “Hermit Kingdom,” put this nexus of settler colonialism and commercial empire in more intimate, conjugal terms. As Shufeldt put it in 1882: “The Pacific is the ocean bride of America—China, Japan and Corea—and their innumerable islands, hanging like necklaces about them, are the bridesmaids. California is the nuptial couch, the bridal chamber, where all the wealth of the Orient will be brought to celebrate the wedding.”14

In his history of the transcontinental railroad, Manu Karuka reads the project of U.S. westward expansion and infrastructural integration as one of “continental imperialism”—situating U.S. subjugation of the North American continent as the precondition for its supposed leap beyond continental boundaries in 1898.15 In this context, commercial Orientalism—centered on dreams of appropriating China’s riches—was a determinative discourse. When Thomas Jefferson oversaw the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, he tasked explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark with the imperative to explore the Missouri River’s potential links with the Pacific Ocean, seeking “the most direct and practical water communication across the continent for the purpose of commerce.” When Asa Whitney set out to proselytize his dream of a transcontinental railroad, he similarly pitched the project as part of the westward march of civilization and commercial integration with Asia, a means of “reaching out one hand to all Asia and the other to all Europe.”16

These fantasies of Pacific expansion undergird a material history of the overlapping projects of continental imperialism, commercial Orientalism, and overseas empire. These diverse colonial projects coalesced in the last decade of the nineteenth century. As the U.S. Census announced the formal “closing” of the Western frontier in 1890, a new era of Pacific expansion promised to realize the investment in the fabled Far East market marked by projects such as the transcontinental railroad. As the U.S. historian Hubert Bancroft put it then: “We are no longer a virgin continent to develop. Pioneer work in the United States is done, and now must take the plunge into the sea.”17

Imagined as a seabound highway to the Far East, the Pacific was key to an ascending U.S. commercial empire “destined to bear on its bosom a larger commerce than the Atlantic,” in the words of the U.S. minister to China Charles Denby.18 Here, China figured as the most prized of U.S. Pacific manifest inheritances—an “El Dorado of commerce,” as Denby avariciously described to the American Asiatic Association, a consortium of traders, capitalists, and missionaries with interests in the Far East. Once again, this commercial Orientalism facilitated diverse modes of formal colonialism: the China trade loomed large over debates on the annexation of Hawai‘i following the overthrow of the sovereign Kingdom of Hawai‘i in 1893. The position of the McKinley administration amid congressional debate over annexation was clear: “We must have Hawai‘i to help us get our share of China.”19 The overdetermined logic of commercial imperialism similarly structured U.S. colonialism in the Philippines. Following the Spanish-American War, anti-expansionists called for the retrocession of the Philippines to Spain or the partial retention of a single port city for U.S. administration. Yet, annexationists pointed not only to the inherent value of the archipelago, but also its importance for regional U.S. strategy. Speaking before Congress in 1900, leading advocate of imperialism Senator Albert Beveridge insisted on the full retention of the Philippines as a U.S. territory: “The Philippines are ours forever…and just beyond the Philippines are China’s illimitable markets. We will not retreat from either. The Pacific is our ocean.”20

Beveridge’s annexationist camp won out, leading to the genocidal repression of Filipino national liberation fighters by the U.S. military in its efforts to pacify the islands.21 This endemic violence was framed as a necessary precondition to McKinley’s vision of the Philippines as an “American Hong Kong”—a launchpad for commercial and military escapades into China and beyond.22

The Open Door: China as Colonial “Exception”?

The commercial Orientalism that framed China as the “natural customer” of U.S. surplus served as one of many animating discourses for U.S. practices of racial capitalism, continental imperialism, and Pacific expansion in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Yet, historiographies of U.S. empire are often marked by the critical absence of China, despite its constitutive role. Indeed, China’s retention of territorial integrity is frequently described as an exception to the rule of nineteenth-century Western imperialism. It is true that unlike India, Vietnam, or the Philippines, China was never subjected to complete territorial colonial administration. And unlike Britain, Portugal, Germany, and Japan—which took formal territorial concessions such as those in Hong Kong, Macau, Shandong, and Taiwan—the United States never oversaw direct administration of Chinese territory. But the partial retention of Chinese territorial integrity in the nineteenth century is better understood not as evidence of China’s evasion of imperialist encroachment, but as a reflection of shifting paradigms of imperialism and the ascendance of a U.S. empire marked by its rhetorical rejection of European colonialism. Indeed, the China “exception” to the rule of territorial colonialism might better be read as paradigmatic of practices of free trade imperialism deployed by the United States under a foreign policy paradigm the historian William Appleman Williams described as “imperial anticolonialism.”23

The theory of imperialism proffered by Williams’s “Wisconsin school,” which challenged the orthodoxies of diplomatic history at the height of the Cold War, is instructive in challenging historiographies of imperialism that naturalize free trade empire as a form of benevolent commercial relations. To the contrary, Williams and other midcentury scholars such as Thomas McCormick argued that U.S. advances on China at the turn of the twentieth century were reflective of a distinctive mode of U.S. imperialism, an “open-door imperialism” that Williams described as designed to “win the victories without the wars.” U.S. China policy formed the seminal deployment of this practice. Through the second half of the nineteenth century, the United States quietly trailed the more aggressive imperialist powers of Britain, Germany, Japan, and Russia, while quietly reaping through peaceful negotiations the same extraterritorial privileges those powers secured through force. On the heels of the First Opium War, the United States negotiated the 1844 Treaty of Wanghia, which afforded the United States “most favored nation” status and the same entitlements as the British—including the right for Americans to buy land in concession ports, fix tariffs on trade within the treaty ports, and the right of extraterritoriality.24 The threat of “gunboat diplomacy” nonetheless loomed over the negotiations: a U.S. warship was stationed outside of Guangzhou to ensure the talks proceeded apace.

While some Americans were sympathetic to the Chinese plight amid Britain’s First Opium War, former president John Quincy Adams recognized that U.S. business interests ultimately converged with the British position. The cause of the war, Adams argued, was not fundamentally about opium, but rather China’s “anticommercial” stance. In civilizational terms, Adams decried “the arrogant and insupportable pretension of China” to refuse “commercial intercourse with the rest of mankind…upon terms of equal reciprocity.” Adams, alongside a rogue’s gallery of U.S. business leaders such as John Jacob Astor and Thomas Perkins, thus hitched their fortunes to the forced trafficking of opium into China, where an estimated forty million people would become addicted to the narcotic by 1900. By the time the Second Opium War broke out in 1856, the United States was covertly supporting British and French bombardments of the Chinese cities of Tianjin and Guangzhou, despite a formal neutrality designed to differentiate the United States from the imperialist powers in the eyes of the Qing court.25

The United States was thus content to ride the coattails of British imperialist incursions into China for much of the nineteenth century. But by the 1890s, competing Japanese and Russian land claims portended a new “scramble for China” that would threaten the fragile détente through which foreign powers shared equal access to trade in China’s concession ports. The United States would have to proffer a China policy of its own. Having entrenched its colonial projects in Hawai‘i and the Philippines, the United States had committed itself to a Pacific infrastructure designed to tap the China trade. Indeed, the strategic advantage of the Philippines was that it provided a military base for U.S. expeditions into the Chinese mainland if the inter-imperial competition for market access shifted toward discrete spheres of influence under military administration. U.S. opposition to partition was framed as much in terms of commercial pragmatism as opportunistic “anticolonialism.” As Charles Denby, the U.S. minister to China, put it: “Partition would tend to destroy our markets.… Having such interests, is it our duty to remain mute should her autonomy be attacked?”26

In 1899, secretary of state John Hay’s Open Door Note clarified the U.S. position in a statement circulated to the other imperialist powers. Believing U.S. interests in the region to be “destined to infinite development,” Hay called for the retention of equal and open trade with China and a moratorium on exclusive spheres of influence.27 Couched as an anticolonial defense of Chinese territorial integrity, the open-door policy was in fact an articulation of free trade imperialism. Believing in the superiority of U.S. manufacturing, Hay presumed that open competition would inevitably bend toward U.S. commercial dominance. Yet, in staking U.S. commercial supremacy to an ostensibly anticolonial program, the United States was able to performatively distinguish itself from the colonial powers whose forcible incursions into China had created the concessionary port system the United States sought to exploit. It was this open-door imperialism, Williams argued, that would define the ascendance of the U.S. empire in the twentieth century. This ethos of capitalist expansion and commercial penetration—without the costs of imperial invasion or colonial administration—was neatly summed up in a New York Times editorial in 1898 on U.S. policy in the Far East: “We need no more territory, but we must have more markets.”28

The inter-imperialist debate over partition or “open-door” empire in China represented a test case for contemporary theorists of imperialism. Observing the threatened partition of China and the tenuous inter-imperial system of open-door commerce, British critic John A. Hobson described China’s subjection to the domination of foreign capital as “the clearest revelation of the nature of imperialism.”29 Criticizing the language of the “open door” for obscuring the use of imperialist force, Hobson derided the policy as one of “forcing doors open and forcibly keeping them open.”30 For Hobson, the case of imperialism in China was distinguished from colonialism both by the determinative role of finance capital and the spirit of inter-imperial competition and collaboration. China marked a crucial test case in the development of global capitalism, for its subjection was not to exclusive spheres of influence but to an imperialist alliance premised on equal opportunity to exploit. Capitalism, Hobson argued, “may learn the art of combination, and that the power of international capitalism…may make its great crucial experiment in the exploitation of China.”31 In this sense, an epoch of competing national imperialist projects could give way to one of imperial alliance. In many ways, the 1900 invasion of North China by the Eight-Nation Alliance briefly realized Hobson’s diagnosis of imperialist convergence: Britain, Japan, Russia, Germany, France, Italy, Austria-Hungary, and the United States all joined forces to suppress the anticolonial Chinese Boxer Rebellion (Yihetuan Movement) with a force upwards of fifty thousand. Incidentally, it was here that U.S. colonization of the Philippines fulfilled its envisioned purpose as an “American Hong Kong”: five thousand U.S. troops were rallied from the Philippines to suppress the rebellion. “It is to Manila,” Hay noted, “that we owe the ability to send troops and ships to the defense of our ministers, our missionaries, our consuls, and our merchants in China.”32

Hobson’s inquiry into imperialism in China similarly influenced V. I. Lenin’s thinking. At the time of writing Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin observed that the partition of China was “only just beginning.” Quoting affirmatively Hobson’s argument that the subjugation of China would amount to “draining the greatest potential reservoir of profit the world has ever known,” Lenin argued that the superprofits of such imperialism would be used to “bribe the upper strata of the proletariat” in the imperialist countries. Like Hobson, in the attitudes of the imperialist powers toward China, Lenin observed an alliance of “internationally united finance capital” that, due to the inherent instability of imperialist competition, inevitably “prepare[d] the grounds for wars.”

Is It 1840?: The “New” Cold War and the Lacuna of Empire

In May 2018, amid a first round of bilateral talks of a burgeoning U.S.-China trade war, the Global Times published a Weibo article titled “U.S. Proposes ‘Unequal Treaty’ with China. Is It 1840?”33 The article included a screenshot of a draft framework put forth by the U.S. delegation, which outlined a series of trade demands on China. These consisted of calls to liberalize China’s economy by removing tariffs and other barriers to U.S. imports, and a demand for China to reduce the trade imbalance by at least $200 billion by the end of 2020. Lampooning the demands as a return to the “unequal treaties” of the nineteenth century, Chinese netizens on Weibo and other platforms mocked the United States for still living in the past, asking sarcastically whether it would resort to using its aircraft carriers and nuclear arsenal to enforce such ostentatious demands.

The continuity of nineteenth- and twenty-first-century practices of free trade imperialism may have been common sense to Chinese observers, but such comparisons have largely been maligned in U.S. discourse as the terrain of “wolf warriors” and crude nationalists. Indeed, while it is often observed that the “Century of Humiliation” remains a structuring wound in the Chinese national psyche, to speak of Chinese subalternity in Western intellectual circles is now chided as anachronistic. China, we are told, is a superpower, the “world’s factory,” a geopolitical behemoth. Descriptions of China’s hulking force not only evoke the nineteenth-century language of a “Chinese Colossus,” but evades the question of imperialism in contemporary U.S.-China relations. Through this lens, the so-called trade war has been popularly described as an “inter-capitalist competition,” not an ideological one.34

The cavalier intellectual dismissal of Chinese subalternity precludes more productive inquiries into the nature of U.S.-China conflict. Though the most sensationalized charges against China are wielded through the language of human rights and anti-authoritarianism, the core concerns animating U.S. policy escalation toward China are primarily economic. The first wave of the Trump administration’s trade war made this clear: its demands included not only a mandate for China to buy an additional $200 billion in the United States, but also dictated the terms of China’s domestic economic policy—including calling for a halt to subsidies in advanced manufacturing industries, an end to forced intellectual property transfers, and a termination to barriers to entry on foreign companies from domestic financial services such as banking and credit cards.35 The bipartisan Strategic Competition Act put forward in April 2021 similarly tasked Congress with putting forth policies to “[curb] state-directed subsidization of the private sector” and to monitor “anti-competitive” Chinese manufacturing policy. Such policies, the bill warns, intend to “freeze the United States and other foreign firms out of the PRC [People’s Republic of China] market.”36

Here, the language of a “trade war” implies some sense of mutuality. Yet, China does not presume to have the right to make demands about U.S. economic policy. Indeed, this twenty-first-century trade aggression inherits Hobson’s critique of how the language of “free” trade in fact depends on “forcing doors open”: these ongoing stipulations on China’s domestic economic policy are premised on forcibly opening China to the interests of Western capital. Case in point, Bloomberg reported breathlessly on the heels of phase-one trade negotiations that China was “dismantling its great financial wall,” opening its $45 trillion financial market to up to 100 percent foreign ownership.37 This economic warfare is predicated on demands for liberalization and market access that harken not only to China’s Century of Humiliation, but also to the paradigm of neoliberal underdevelopment that has categorized core-periphery relations in the postwar era. While China’s 2001 entry into the World Trade Organization was heralded as the “ultimate privatization” and a limitless boon for Western capital, the persistence of Chinese economic sovereignty and checks on foreign capital represent the frustration of the renewed promise of China’s long-awaited open door. It is no surprise that U.S. trade aggression seeks to dismantle precisely those mechanisms by which China has distinguished itself from other “emergent countries,” whose industrialization, in the words of Samir Amin, has been predicated on being “open to penetration by the monopolies of the imperialist triad.”38

The apparent absence of a critique of imperialism from recent developments in U.S.-China relations also speaks to the naturalization and international institutionalization of free trade imperialism in the so-called postcolonial era. The Bretton Woods agreement created an international structure for the stable management of global capitalism. Dollar hegemony and the development programs of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank also set significant restrictions on the permissible path of political economic policy for developing countries reliant on such loans. These contradictions were only intensified with the formation of the World Trade Organization in 1995, which largely did away with the system of special and differential provisions for developing nations accommodated in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.39

This U.S.-dominated structure positions China not as a developing nation subject to the imperialist pressures of international trade policy, but a “cheater” whose actions undermine the global economy and threaten nations both in the periphery and the imperial core. The discourse of “monetary Orientalism” frames China as a singular currency manipulator, a racialized deviation from the norms of global capitalism “raping” the United States (in the words of Trump) and in need of being disciplined by international financial institutions.40 In this context, the World Trade Organization has functioned as an institutionalized arm of trade aggression on China: between 2009 and 2015, 90 percent of cases brought by the four largest economies against one another were directed against China.41 The majority of these cases seek to adjudicate state economic intervention in private industry, such as state subsidies, state-owned industries, and barriers to foreign ownership. This mobilization to open China’s economy to the domination of foreign capital seeks to realize the “art of combination” of international capitalism that Hobson portended. Within a system of global commerce adjudicated by the imperial core, the hand of imperialist coercion is effectively masked in the familiar language of competition and liberalization. An interventionist Eight-Nation Alliance has receded into the backdrop, leaving only an “anticommercial” China to be disciplined by the U.S.-defined “rules-based” international liberal global order.

A closer examination of the complaints lodged against China by the imperialist triad of North America, the European Union, and Japan makes clear that it is defined less by “inter-imperialist” competition than by the same tactics and disputes that have long defined core-periphery negotiations over the parameters of trade and development in an unequal world. Since China’s ascension to the World Trade Organization, China has sided not with the imperialist powers but with the developing world on issues of development rights, agricultural subsidies, intellectual property, and other key concerns. As the imperialist powers sought to consolidate their dominion over the terms of international trade via the World Trade Organization during the Doha talks of the early 2000s, it was China’s opposition—alongside Brazil, India, and the rest of the developing world—that thwarted attempts to liberalize agricultural subsidy programs in the developing world and obstructed moves to further tighten the restrictions within the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights in order to consolidate the intellectual property monopoly of developed countries’ pharmaceutical companies.42 These determinative core-periphery disputes persist. In 2019, the World Trade Organization ruled in favor of the U.S. complaint against China’s agricultural subsidies that provide critical stability to China’s 550 million agricultural workers—with ramifications for the erosion of minimum price support mechanisms that have sparked mass protests among Indian farmers.43

This should come as no surprise to those who have taken seriously the repeated assertions of Chinese officials that China, despite its rapid industrialization, remains a developing nation. At the Nineteenth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2018, Xi Jinping said China’s status as the world’s “largest developing country” had not changed.44 Similarly, at a 2019 forum with the European Policy Centre, foreign minister Wang Yi told his European counterparts that it would be “irreciprocal” to demand trade reciprocity between China and developed countries, given China’s more recent industrialization path.45 These claims fly in the face of the Western conception of China as a “crazy rich,” hyper-industrialized hub, epitomized by tech tycoons like Jack Ma and the gleaming skyscrapers and high-speed rails linking urban centers like Shanghai and Beijing. The contradictions of what Chinese officials now call “unbalanced and inadequate development” tell a different story: in terms of national gross domestic product per capita, China’s standard of living is only one-sixth of that of the United States, and one-quarter that of the European Union. These disparities become clearer when adjusting for provincial disparities. Middle-tier inland provinces such as Henan have a gross domestic product per capita that is one-eighth of that of the United States (comparable to Equatorial Guinea); China’s poorest province, Gansu, is one-thirteenth that of the United States (comparable to Namibia).46 As a middle-income, developing country in which more than five hundred million people remain in agricultural work, it is natural that China would form strategic alliances with other Global South countries when negotiating the terms of international trade. These macroeconomic and geopolitical realities undermine dematerialized notions of an inter-imperial rivalry between the U.S. and China.

Crucially, U.S. trade aggression against China has been largely focused on industries through which China seeks to develop a sovereign economy independent from the U.S. hegemonic world system, in which China’s role has been circumscribed as that of the “world’s factory.” China’s economic engagement with the core nations since 1979 has been largely predicated on making China’s comparative advantage in labor costs available to Western corporations to offshore manufacturing. However, Chinese state investments in education, infrastructure, and high-tech innovation, coupled with requirements for foreign firms to transfer technology in exchange for operating in China, has jumpstarted domestic innovation and led to the rise of Chinese value-added industry in electronics, mobile apps, and other tech innovation industries. It is precisely these industries that have been the target of U.S. trade belligerence. Efforts such as Made in China 2025, which wields Chinese state economic capacity to build Chinese innovation in domestic high-tech fields like information technology and telecommunications, have been a prime target of Western hostility. The hawkish Council for Foreign Relations, for instance, wondered if the development program was “a threat to global trade.”47 Observers argued that Made in China 2025 was the “real target” of the Trump administration’s trade war.48 These attempts to undermine China’s industrial modernization and approach to escaping the “middle-income trap” of newly industrialized countries are not emblematic of an inter-imperial rivalry, but of a continued paradigm of imperialist trade aggression that has tried to maintain developing nations either as sites of resource extraction or outsourced, low value-added manufacturing.

Concerns over China’s entry into the domain of tech innovation—long the exclusive domain of the triad—are often cast in racialized terms: Republican senator Thom Tillis said the United States needed to “chop off” the “tentacles” of Chinese 5G infrastructure during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting. When the Chinese-owned TikTok became a social media craze among U.S. teenagers, former Trump trade advisor Peter Navarro (author of a book called Death by China) warned that “the mothers of America” had to worry about “whether the Chinese Communist Party knows where their children are.”49 These salacious representations of Chinese technology inherit a long history of associations between Chinese goods and bodies, and racialized, sexualized invasion. At the height of nineteenth-century anti-Chinese fervor, the Workingman’s Party, a California labor organization, campaigned to boycott cigars made by Chinese employees, arguing that these products would be conduits for racialized Oriental disease that threatened the propriety of the white nuclear family.50

As Lok Siu and Clare Chun argue, this convergence of yellow peril and techno-Orientalism has been used to advance a kind of techno-economic warfare, one that has only been intensified by the racialization of the COVID-19 pandemic.51 Increasingly, this racialized discourse of Chinese technology is used to cajole allies to spurn Chinese tech products—5G infrastructure in particular. Hypocritically, as the United States has attempted to force an “open door” in China’s domestic markets via trade aggression, it has used extraeconomic means to shut the door on Chinese technology exports. The State Department has threatened to cease sharing U.S. intelligence with allies that accept Chinese 5G infrastructure, stoking allegations that the Chinese Communist Party will install “backdoors” to access sensitive information—even as U.S. allies have conducted their own security reviews to the contrary. The Strategic Competition Act of 2021 similarly calls on U.S. governmental agencies to support European and Canadian “efforts to identify cost-effective alternatives to Huawei’s 5G technology.” The function of techno-Orientalist representations of Chinese technology is clear: in reifying tropes of Oriental despotism in binary opposition to Western liberalism, the United States has essentially shunted its own very real, documented history of surveillance of allies onto China.

The Old Geographies of a “New” Cold War

In November 2009, standing before a captive audience of Japanese diplomats at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall, president Barack Obama once again staked the future of U.S. preeminence to its ability to dominate the Asia-Pacific region. Declaring himself the “first Pacific President” of the United States, Obama outlined a commercial and military “rebalancing” act that would become known as the “pivot to Asia.”52 Following suit, secretary of state Hillary Clinton announced the twenty-first century would be “America’s Pacific Century.” Clinton promised that increased commitments to the region would “pay dividends for continued American leadership well into this century.”53 In marking Asia and the Pacific as the primary theater of U.S. “leadership,” the Obama-era “pivot” instantiated a new foreign policy common sense that has guided all subsequent administrations. America’s destiny, once again, faces west.

The contemporary consolidation of U.S. military and commercial hegemony in the Pacific to “counter” China’s rise bears all the historical patterns of its nineteenth- and twentieth-century instantiation. Like nineteenth-century Pacific expansion, revived Cold War militarism renders sovereign Pacific Island nations mere “stepping stones” to Asia under a military settler-colonial logic of Pacific securitization. Endemic sexual violence, ecological catastrophe, and settler dispossession in Hawai‘i, Guåhan, the Mariana Islands, and Okinawa continue under a geostrategic discourse that renders places and peoples mere “island chains” bound in strategic containment of China. Likewise, the pattern of Cold War militarization that manifests in permanent U.S. military bases in South Korea, the Philippines, and Okinawa is reinscribed as liberal “protection” of U.S. allies from Chinese hegemonic aspirations. In reality, this “defensive” posture simply repackages the historical architecture and endemic violence of U.S. transpacific imperialism.

In bipartisan lockstep, the Trump and now Biden administrations have continued the inflation of U.S. military power in the Pacific region. For all the talk of the Trump era’s isolationism, his administration oversaw the ballooning of arms sales to Japan, South Korea, and India—with whom Trump sealed a $3 billion defense sale during a 2020 visit, sending a clear message to Beijing following clashes at the India-China border.54 A Trump-era Indo-Pacific Command proposal to “regain the advantage” in Asia and the Pacific has been repackaged as the Pacific Deterrence Initiative—a 2021 budget request for $27 billion in congressional funding to expand missile defense sites in Guam, training facilities in Micronesia, Palau, and the Marshall Islands, and extend joint force exercises with Korea and Japan.55 A new Marine Corps base in Guam will give $3 billion to the Japanese government, as part of an agreement that will ultimately send an additional 5,000 U.S. troops to Guam and another 2,700 to Hawai‘i.56

In particular, the cohering of “new” Cold War geographies in an anti-China containment strategy are marked by the continuity of Japan’s postwar role as a subimperial power managed by U.S. interests. As a regional partner, the United States allows Japan to shirk accountability for its imperial crimes, obstructing Chinese and Korean movements for “comfort women” reparations and turning away when Japanese leaders like Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga visit shrines considered by China and Korea to sanctify imperial war criminals.57 Through the Asian Development Bank, the United States has deputized Japanese financial management of its various Asian allies. Most egregiously, it has quietly supported moves by Japanese hawks to revise the country’s peacetime constitution to enable the buildup of a standing army—claiming the move as a strategic counterbalance to China’s military modernization. Those quick to compare the U.S.-China dynamic to that of the U.S. and Japanese empires prior to the Second World War would do well to remember that the resolution of that inter-imperial rivalry—via the subordination and appropriation of political infrastructures of Japanese imperialism in Korea, the Philippines, and Okinawa to, and for purposes of, U.S. hegemony—continues to structure the region.

A diverse geography of national liberation, demilitarization, and Indigenous sovereignty struggles converge under the U.S. hegemonic embrace of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” The pivot to Asia has been met with multiple, overlapping grassroots movements opposing the existential threat continued U.S. militarization poses to local livelihoods, cultural practices, and ecologies. Okinawan activists continue to protest the construction of a new military base in Henoko Bay, built on a Second World War battlefield site containing the remains of Okinawan civilians who died during the war.58 Popular Korean movements are protesting the construction of a military base on Jeju Island and the deployment of the costly Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, both of which are seen as actions motivated by the U.S. agenda toward China.59 Ongoing Chamorro activism has sought to obstruct Department of Defense plans to intensify its military presence at the “tip of the spear” since 2009.60

The triangulation of military settler colonialism in the Pacific under the auspices of an aggressive military agenda on China reflects what scholars from Guåhan, Okinawa, and beyond have criticized as the mobilization of a “China threat” discourse by the colonial powers, in order to facilitate “neocolonial entrenchment.” In this sense, mobilizing fears of imminent Chinese aggression is used to further restrict the political futures available to Indigenous peoples living under U.S. military occupation.61

Centuries of unfolding and overlapping projects of commercial Orientalism, anticommunism, settler colonialism, and military hegemony come to a head in the reduction of Asia and the Pacific into a securitized domain of U.S. great power hegemony. As the possibility of an open door to the fabled China market fades under the continuing leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, U.S. investment in a global infrastructure of transpacific empire now manifests in a twenty-first-century containment program. To speak of “competing imperialisms” in the region is to conflate the unprecedented hegemony of a U.S. empire with 375,000 Indo-Pacific Command personnel scattered across hundreds of military bases with China’s relatively modest and strictly domestic-based military modernization, which even U.S. defense experts admit is primarily confined to “anti-access” defensive measures.62

Through discursive sleight of hand and willful ahistoricism, these deeply entrenched geographies of U.S. transpacific empire disappear amid highly charged rhetoric about the “rise of China” and a “new” Cold War between China and the United States. The speculative charge of Chinese hegemony cannot be used to evade a materialist analysis of how U.S. empire, in all its variegated forms, continues to structure Asia and the Pacific—whose peoples continue to fight for political futures beyond their unwilled positioning within “America’s Lake.”


  1. 56 Cong. Rec. 704–12 (January 9, 1900) (Albert J. Beveridge, “In Support of an American Empire”).
  2. Robert C. O’Brien, “A Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” Trump White House Archives, January 5, 2021.
  3. David Palumbo-Liu, Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1999).
  4. Quoted in John W. Dower, “Occupied Japan and the American Lake, 1945–1950,” in America’s Asia: Dissenting Essays on Asian-American Relations, ed. Edward Friedman and Mark Selden (New York: Pantheon, 1971), 170–71.
  5. John W. Dower, “Occupied Japan and the American Lake, 1945–1950,” 171.
  6. See Christopher L. Connery, “Pacific Rim Discourse: The U. S. Global Imaginary in the Late Cold War Years,” Boundary 2 21, no. 1 (1994): 30–56.
  7. Sanjeev Miglani, “India Protests U.S. Navy’s Transit Through Its Exclusive Economic Zone,” Reuters, April 10, 2021.
  8. S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific (Washington DC: Trump White House Archives, 2021).
  9. See, for instance, Ho-Fung Hung, “The US-China Rivalry Is About Capitalist Competition,” Jacobin, July 11, 2020.
  10. See Gordon H. Chang, Fateful Ties: A History of America’s Preoccupation with China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).
  11. Gerald Horne, The Counter-Revolution of 1776 (New York: New York University Press, 2016).
  12. Palumbo-Liu, Asian/American, 340.
  13. Chang, Fateful Ties, 43.
  14. Walter Lafeber, The American Age: U.S. Foreign Policy at Home and Abroad Since 1750 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989), 182.
  15. Manu Karuka, Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019).
  16. Chang, Fateful Ties, 41, 45.
  17. Palumbo-Liu, Asian/American, 349.
  18. LaFeber, The American Age, 131.
  19. Thomas McCormick, “Insular Imperialism and the Open Door: The China Market and the Spanish-American War,” Pacific Historical Review 32, no. 2 (1963): 161.
  20. Palumbo-Liu, Asian/American, 19.
  21. For more on U.S. war in the Philippines and its genocidal logic, see Dylan Rodriguez, Suspended Apocalypse: White Supremacy, Genocide, and the Filipino Condition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).
  22. McCormick, “Insular Imperialism and the Open Door,” Pacific Historical Review 32, no. 2 (1963): 158.
  23. William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009).
  24. Yoni Wilkenfeld, “The First U.S.-China Trade Deal,” JSTOR Daily, October 23, 2019.
  25. Chang, Fateful Ties, 30; Charles Oscar Paullin, “Early Voyages of American Naval Vessels to the Orient,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings 36, no. 3 (1910).
  26. Thomas McCormick, China Market: America’s Quest for Informal Empire, 1893–1901 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), 77.
  27. McCormick, China Market, 127.
  28. McCormick, China Market, 93.
  29. John A. Hobson, Imperialism: A Study (New York: James Pott & Co., 1902), 306.
  30. McCormick, China Market, 155.
  31. Hobson, Imperialism, 311.
  32. McCormick, China Market, 163.
  33. “美对华提出 ‘不平等条约’ 当现在是1840年?,” Global Times, May 6, 2018.
  34. Hung, “The US-China Rivalry Is About Capitalist Competition.”
  35. “’What’s in the U.S.-China Phase 1 Trade Deal,” Reuters, January 15, 2020.
  36. Strategic Competition Act of 2021, S. 1169, 117th Cong., 1st Session (2021–2022).
  37. “China’s $45 Trillion Market Is Opening Up. Here’s What to Watch in 2020,” Bloomberg, December 29, 2019.
  38. Samir Amin, “China 2013,” Monthly Review 64, no. 10 (March 2013).
  39. Jayati Ghosh, “The Creation of the Next Imperialism: The Institutional Architecture,” Monthly Review 67, no. 3 (July–August 2015).
  40. Long T. Bui, “Monetary Orientalism: Currency Wars and the Framing of China as Global Cheater,” Global Society 33, no. 4 (2019): 479–98.
  41. Mark Wu, “The ‘China, Inc.’ Challenge to Global Trade Governance,” Harvard International Law Journal 57, no. 2 (2016): 261–324.
  42. Chin Leng Lim and Jiang Yu Wang, “China and the Doha Development Agenda” (working paper, World Trade Organization Forum, Geneva, September 28, 2009).
  43. “What Is MSP and Why Are Farmers Protesting Over It?,” India Today, September 29, 2020.
  44. “Commentary: Why Is China Still a Developing Country?,” Xinhua, June 5, 2018.
  45. “China Remains a Developing Country: Foreign Minister,” Xinhua, December 17, 2019.
  46. 2019 National Data,” National Bureau of Statistics of China, accessed May 31, 2021.
  47. James McBride and Andrew Chatzky, “Is ‘Made in China 2025’ a Threat to Global Trade?,” Council on Foreign Relations, 2019.
  48. David Dodwell, “The Real Target of Trump’s Trade War is ‘Made in China 2025,’” South China Morning Post, June 17, 2018.
  49. “Navarro on TikTok: ‘The Mothers of America’ Have to Worry About China Tracking Their Kids,” Axios, August 3, 2020.
  50. See Nayan Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).
  51. Lok Siu and Claire Chun, “Yellow Peril and Techno-orientalism in the Time of Covid-19: Racialized Contagion, Scientific Espionage, and Techno-Economic Warfare,” Journal of Asian American Studies 23, no. 3 (2020): 421–40.
  52. Remarks by President Barack Obama at Suntory Hall,” Obama White House Archives, November 14, 2009.
  53. Hillary Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century,” Foreign Affairs, October 11, 2011.
  54. Robbie Gramer and Jack Detsch, “Trump Looks to Arms Sales to Deepen Ties with India,” Foreign Policy, August 4, 2020.
  55. Tom Bowman, “Pentagon Pushes for Bigger Effort to Deter China’s Growing Military Might,” Washington Post, March 16, 2021.
  56. Kevin Knodell, “Japan Is Paying for New U.S. Military Facilities in Guam and the CNMI. Here’s Why,” Honolulu Civil Beat, November 1, 2020.
  57. “South Korea Voices ‘Deep Regrets’ over Suga’s Offering to Yasukuni War Shrine,” Korea Times, October 17, 2020.
  58. Maia Hibbett, “In Okinawa, the US Military Seeks a Base Built on the Bones of the War Dead,” Nation, February 18, 2021.
  59. Statement—No Naval Base on Jeju Island,” Nodutdol, October 17, 2019.
  60. Michael Lujan Bevacqua, “Guam: Protests at the Tip of America’s Spear,” South Atlantic Quarterly 116, no. 1 (2017): 174–83.
  61. Adam Grydehøj et al., “Practicing Decolonial Political Geography: Island Perspectives on Neocolonialism and the China Threat Discourse,” Political Geography 85, no. 1 (2021).
  62. The US Has a Massive Presence in the Asia-Pacific,” The World, August 11, 2017.
2021, Volume 73, Issue 3 (July-August 2021)
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