US 'forced labor' opportunism strikes again

Tom Fowdy
The US bans Chinese goods based on political, strategic and economic motivations.
Tom Fowdy

Last week the United States blacklisted two Chinese firms, the Camel Group, a battery manufacturer, and the Chenguang Biotech Group, a spice and tract manufacturer, accusing them of having employed so-called "forced labor" in their manufacturing, banning their products from entry into the US.

A US spokesman claimed that the blacklisting was holding China to account for "genocide and crimes against humanity."

This is not the first time that the United States has used accusations of forced labor in order to ban specific products from China. The theme repeats itself over the past three years, including products such as cotton, tomatoes and solar panels. Now, however, the emphasis is turning to batteries, why? Because the US sees the manufacturing of batteries as a critical strategic good in its competition with China over renewables, and therefore doing what it always does, resorting to bad faith tactics in order to further the ends of protectionism.

The US bans Chinese goods based on political, strategic and economic motivations. The utilization of allegations of "forced labor," which is never truly substantiated, is an opportunistic pretence in order to target certain items perceived to be dominated by China in order to facilitate supply chain shifts favorable to US objectives.

This has been a consistent goal of US foreign policy, which consistently talks about supply chain "resilience" and "diversification" as codewords for excluding China, and attempts to move other countries in the same direction.

As a result, allegations of forced labor are repeatedly pushed by US government-funded think tanks or organizations in order to fulfil, justify and manufacture consent for these objectives, which are then amplified by the media.

As one example of this, the firm which first published allegations of forced labor in the solar panel supply chain, in line with the Biden administration's objectives to dominate clean energy manufacturing, Horizon Advisory, is a single purpose anti-China think tank receiving funding from the US department of defence.

With such allegations being so deeply intertwined with strategic objectives, the Xinjiang "forced labor" card is not applied with any moral consistency or urgency, but tends to come and go depending on whensoever the US intends to weaponize it. The allegation of "genocide" sits in a box on a shelf, which is essentially pulled out whenever the US seeks to invoke it for strategic, economic and geopolitical ends.

In this case, however, it has been a growing theme of media discourse and criticism from Republican politicians that the US is not doing enough in order to deal with China's success in battery supply chains for electric vehicles.

It is therefore a natural consequence that allegations of forced labor follow, because it is a convenient ruse to exclude a given company or product from the supply chain completely and therefore eliminate it as a competitor. The US political system does not play nice when it comes to China but seeks to degrade, smear and undermine its international standing through constant weaponization of allegations.

It is therefore no surprise that the US "concerns" for forced labor are not applied consistently in respect to other countries, that real human slavery throughout the world is likewise completely ignored and not treat as a moral dilemma, and of course that they are perfectly fine with the widespread use of penal labour in their own prison systems.

In other words, the US real problem is its perceived inability or unwillingness to compete with China on level terms, which as a whole has produced an inward turn to protectionism in its own economic policies, obsessed with forcibly attempting to reshore supply chains, and of course using whatever smears it can to exclude the products of rivals from its market.

If it isn't "forced labor" the other card it plays, more applicable to technology, is that of a "national security threat" which again is always based on unsubstantiated allegations, fearmongering and weaponization of paranoia. The US has no intentions or good faith to compete positively, but rather seeks to tear others down.

(The author, a postgraduate student of Chinese studies at Oxford University, is an English analyst on international relations. The views are his own.)

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