The New U.S.-China Interdependence
The United States and China are swapping one form of interdependence for another. The old interdependence was an economic phenomenon characterized by close cooperation in areas such as trade, investment, and lending – what Niall Ferguson and Moritz Schularick once called “Chimerica.” The new interdependence, on the other hand, is a much darker and purely political affair, which has seen leaders in both countries rush to vilify the other side as a way to shore up political support at home. But while the likes of Donald Trump and Xi Jinping might benefit in the short-term from importing negative images of one another for domestic consumption, this new form of U.S.-China entanglement will serve neither country well in the long run.
Until a few weeks ago, there was at least the prospect that the strained U.S.-China relationship would improve if only a new trade pact could be put in place. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has dashed all hopes of improved relations any time soon. In Washington, Trump and his supporters have made a strategy out of blaming China for its early mishandling of the outbreak. For their part, Chinese officials and state media outlets have put about their own theories of why the United States is to blame for Covid-19 – floating, for example, the outlandish possibility that a U.S. military delegation to Wuhan in late 2019 was responsible for bringing the virus to China.
For leaders in both capitals, it seems, there is currently more to gain by worsening the U.S.-China relationship than rescuing it. This is not a new phenomenon. Thomas Christiansen wrote a whole book on how, during the early Cold War, U.S. and Chinese leaders stoked fear and hatred of the other side as a means of tightening their respective grips on power and policy. In Christiansen’s words, the two sides proved to be “useful adversaries.”
Today, it is important that President Trump and his allies are denied the same opportunity to use China as a scapegoat for cynical purposes. Most immediately, there are tangible human costs to demonizing China from the bully pulpit. The recent spike in racist attacks against Asian Americans has laid bare just how ugly, divisive, and dangerous this domestic underside of anti-China rhetoric can be. Whenever Trump rails against China (“the Chinese”), his words invariably fuel racism and xenophobia at the local level across the United States.
There are also foreign-policy risks that come along with inflating the threat posed by China, especially given the unhelpful tendency for Covid-19 to be discussed as a “national security” issue. America’s cadre of China hawks will take any opportunity to cast Beijing as an implacable foe and existential threat. Although few such analysts had anticipated a global pandemic emanating from China, they are now adamant that the Covid-19 outbreak is confirmation that their prescription for a hard line against China was right all along.
Of course, there are sensible reasons to support a toughened approach to Beijing – at least in some policy domains. But the push for a “new Cold War” with China is wrongheaded, simplistic, and counter to the interests of ordinary Americans – especially if it leads to a prolonged militarization of U.S. foreign policy in East Asia.
As Michael Fuchs has argued, what the international community needs right now is cooperation between the United States and China. Any time spent slinging mud will only succeed at delaying this essential work. Yet domestic support for cooperation with China – even on an ad hoc basis – will become threadbare if U.S. politicians allow themselves to become embroiled in a race to the bottom. Unfortunately, there is a very real risk of this happening in light of Joe Biden’s recent broadside against Trump for alleged softness on China. If they are not careful with how they discuss the U.S.-China relationship in domestic politics, both Republicans and Democrats will find themselves boxed into a position from which working with Beijing comes untenable.
Finally, anti-Chinese attacks in U.S. domestic politics are doubly damaging in the sense that they make it easier for China’s communist leaders to use anti-Americanism as a tool for consolidating their own power. The insight here is that the success of future diplomacy between Washington and Beijing will depend upon both sets of leaders enjoying domestic freedom of maneuver. It is not in America’s long-term interests for China’s rulers to view their political survival as being dependent upon an antagonistic relationship with the United States.
The United States and China will always suffer from fraught relations for as long as the Communist Party reigns in Beijing. Unalloyed peace and harmony are not options. Not least of all, this is because the People’s Republic is a brutal authoritarian regime, guilty of gross violations of human rights and perhaps moving toward a more belligerent foreign policy in East Asia. Hopes of encouraging democratic reform inside China are dim, to put it mildly. Nobody should be naïve about any of this.
But America’s leaders must find ways to criticize the Chinese government without indulging racists at home and strengthening the hand of the Chinese Communists abroad. Beijing can be challenged where appropriate without sacrificing all instances of cooperation, particularly when it comes to tackling areas of common interest like international public health. At least, something will have gone badly wrong if U.S. foreign policy toward China comes to be made strictly in accordance with the short-term, cynical interests of its top leaders.
The old idea of the United States and China moving in lockstep toward a future of perpetual peace and prosperity has proven to be illusory – a literal chimera. But the worst outcome for all concerned would be if America’s China hawks succeed at substituting one form of interdependence for another form of political entanglement that is much more corrosive and, indeed, hardwired to produce conflict between the world’s two most powerful nations. To avoid this outcome, U.S. leaders must practice restraint not just in foreign policy, but in domestic politics too.