The Coming Tug of War Over America’s China Policy

The Coming Tug of War Over America’s China Policy
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
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Should the United States try to slow, halt, or reverse the rise of China? According to an increasing number of analysts, the answer is yes. Their reasoning is straightforward: the United States derives significant advantages from its dominant position in East Asia and the wider world. China’s rise has the potential to upend this favorable status quo, and so it makes strategic sense for the United States to stymie Beijing’s growth in power. From this view, the Trump administration has been correct to articulate a vision of “great power competition” in defense of national and international security.

Yet no matter how compelling the geostrategic rationale for containing China, the durability of a hardline approach will depend upon whether a decisive slice of domestic opinion can be turned against Beijing over the long haul. This is by no means assured. For while there is a distinct anti-China contingent in Washington, DC – a bloc that looks certain to be emboldened in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic – America’s long-term appetite for competition with China is highly susceptible to shifts in how political leaders choose to portray the world’s next superpower.

The reality is that the effects of China’s rise are felt unevenly inside the United States. It is true that some groups perceive their interests as being under threat from China – import-competing industries and organized labor, for example. Efforts to curtail the U.S.-China relationship will always garner at least some political support from such corners, as President Trump’s “trade war” with China has amply attested.

But not all domestic groups stand to lose from closeness with China. Exporters view China as a lucrative market for their products, some state and local governments benefit from generous Chinese investment in their communities, and more than a few universities and colleges have reaped the rewards of attracting Chinese students to U.S. shores, to name just a few examples.

The existence of these two stylized coalitions – one opposed to close cooperation with China, the other with a preference for expanding economic ties – means that aspirants to high office must tread carefully when forging their China policies. Indulging either hardliners or soft-liners can leave America’s leaders open to criticism from the opposing side. This is especially true of sitting presidents, who tend to discover that what played well in opposition is not always easy to implement once seated in the Oval Office.

In other words, U.S. foreign policy toward China depends upon the domestic context just as much as geopolitical conditions. This helps to explain why the United States has not adopted an unambiguously hard line on China for the past forty years, despite it being obvious all along that China posed a long-term challenge to America’s privileged position atop the international order: it simply did not pay for U.S. leaders to paint China as an implacable foe.

To be sure, the United States has geared its military presence in the Asia-Pacific toward the ends of deterring Chinese expansionism and reassuring nervous allies. But efforts to deny Beijing superiority in the military realm have been coupled with policies of constructive engagement, particularly in the economic sphere – efforts that have enjoyed considerable bipartisan support at home.

Under President Trump, it is possible that a more aggressive response to China’s rise is taking shape. Whereas past presidents generally sought to preserve U.S.-China economic ties in hopes of bolstering the fortunes of key sectors of the U.S. economy, Trump has taken a jackhammer to this critical foundation of the bilateral relationship. The President’s wager has been that blue-collar voters in America’s industrial (and post-industrial) heartlands are more important to his electoral coalition than sectoral interests that depend upon smooth trade with China. He is yet to be proven wrong.

Of course, Trump is not the first leader to have made a temporary success out of demonizing China. President Truman, too, sought to gin up domestic opposition to China in order to serve his political interests. Even though the newly declared People’s Republic of China was not much of a security threat to the United States in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Truman administration manufactured the narrative that China’s “fall” to communism was something that Americans of all political stripes ought to fear. It was a rendering of international events that helped Truman in the domestic arena by encouraging Republicans and conservative Democrats alike to throw their lot in with the President.

However, hardline approaches only last for as long as they are politically expedient. Beginning in the 1960s, U.S. officials began to view China in a different light than had been the case in the immediate postwar period – that is, as a potential ally against the Soviet Union rather than a rogue international actor. And for Richard Nixon, the ensuing diplomatic opening to China served a dual purpose: not just a way to balance against Soviet power in East Asia but also an opportunity to cement his desired domestic image as a far-sighted statesman, a confident steward of the national interest, and a true man of peace.

For around 40 years, the dominant calculus of U.S. leaders from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama has been that cooperating with China offers more benefits (and exposes them to fewer political risks) than does a foreign policy of unabridged antagonism. Some politicians have staked out positions for themselves as defenders of Taiwanese security or protectors of human rights, but this has rarely been true of incumbent presidents. Trump’s embrace of a comprehensive hard line on China is something of an anomaly in this regard.

How long can the current climate of anti-China politics last in the United States? In the immediate term, it seems likely that the coronavirus pandemic will make Sinophobia even more popular with domestic audiences than it has been until now; Trump’s political allies are already blaming Beijing for the coronavirus outbreak, with some using the crisis to promote their ideas for a forced economic “decoupling” from China.

In the longer term, though, it is possible that the experience of dealing with a global pandemic will reopen the space for political entrepreneurs to support cooperation with Beijing. The presumptive Democratic nominee for President, Joe Biden, has made a point of stressing his track record of engaging China on issues such as climate change and the world economy. If Biden becomes president, he might be tempted to accentuate his image as a responsible world leader by pursuing a diplomatic rapprochement with China. This is to say nothing of the obvious economic gains that could be expected from simply ending Trump’s disastrous trade war.

The bottom line is that America’s China policy is as much about domestic political opportunity as it is about international security. “Balancing” against China begins at home – but so do policies of engagement. It is possible that Americans will come to perceive China as an irredeemable enemy – and that, in turn, containment-like foreign policies will become ingrained features of U.S. grand strategy. But if this comes to pass, it will be because China has been portrayed in such a light by self-interested political operators. It is not an inevitable outcome.

Indeed, it is just as easy to imagine that China’s will undergo a rehabilitation in U.S. domestic politics at the instigation of political entrepreneurs who recognize that a hard line toward Beijing does not pay quite so handsomely for them as a policy of constructive engagement. For years, pro-China groups have been muted in U.S. politics, causing them to lose their traditional grip on China policy. It will not remain that way forever – especially as the economic costs of the trade war continue to be felt. At the very least, a tug of war over America’s relationship with China is probably in the offing. The whole world has an interest in who wins.

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