Inflamed American Attitudes Interfere in Healthy Competition with China
With US-China tensions rising, Beijing’s assertiveness could rapidly metastasize if US takes steps to “decouple” the bilateral relationship. This article originally appeared on the website of The Hill on May 21, 2020.
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Relations between the U.S. and China are at a potentially pivotal intersection. Many in Washington want to punish Beijing for its early part in allowing COVID-19 to spread — an outcome that public opinion suggests most Americans might embrace. As the virus continues to imperil American lives and devastate the U.S. economy, mass anger at China will most certainly mount, encouraged not only by rhetoric from Washington but also by the dual threats to America’s national identity of Chinese expansion and relative U.S. decline. Against today's backdrop of geopolitical competition with Beijing, Washington’s range of possible policy choices will become increasingly constrained by the complex interplay of inflamed American public attitudes and malign Chinese government behavior.
The push by D.C. to criticize the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for its COVID-19 response is compatible with the broader American shift under President Trump from strategic engagement with China to strategic competition. However, as Washington’s competitive stance solidifies, Americans can expect tensions with China to continue escalating. In the short term, Beijing’s assertiveness could rapidly metastasize if U.S. efforts to “decouple” relations, punctuated by the growing frequency of anti-Asian prejudice in the U.S. and elsewhere, become the order of the day. International calls to punish China for COVID-19 play directly into Beijing’s habit whenever politically convenient of repurposing its 19th century “humiliation” by the West as a diplomatic cudgel with which to browbeat others for alleged unfair treatment.
While the pandemic may help to focus American views on why exactly they are competing instead of cooperating with China, the crisis also calls into sharp relief the importance of some measure of healthy coexistence with Beijing. Unfortunately, managing the new balance of “competition without catastrophe” in the U.S.-China relationship — an expression adopted by former U.S. diplomats Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan last year — may prove difficult as relations become increasingly tethered to forces of public perception that are not easily managed in today’s era of easy information manipulation by both domestic and foreign actors. Stateside, these political constraints already are playing out through the predictable, almost politically unavoidable, actions of both Trump and his presumptive Democratic opponent, former vice president Joe Biden.
Public opinion’s increased salience in terms of dictating actual policy is easily apparent through Trump’s push to pin greater responsibility for American deaths and economic losses on China. As political incumbents staring down the double barrel of a prolonged economic downturn and public health crisis, the White House and GOP need someone to blame for the country’s misfortunes. China, rightly under a cloud of suspicion for its disinformation efforts and coercive diplomacy in response to international calls to investigate its early role in spreading COVID-19, presents a useful target.
On the other side of the partisan ledger, Biden has more carefully distinguished between criticizing the Chinese government response and blaming the country, even as many Democrats openly discuss the difficulty in trying to advance legitimate complaints against the CCP while not further amplifying the American public's growing bias against Chinese people. Indeed, despite Biden’s pains to articulate a more careful intent to “get tough” on China, many in his own party appear to worry still that his recent efforts to rebuff claims of softness on Beijing might inadvertently fuel the mainstream rise of anti-Asian sentiments.
Most sensible politicians would advise that public anger about China’s murky response to COVID-19 be aimed at the CCP and not the Chinese people. However, fringe voices across the political spectrum have and will continue to blur this and other distinctions in discourse regarding China, their efforts made easier by domestic partisanship, media spin and CCP information warfare. As the health and economic consequences of the pandemic continue to balloon, and the demand to punish someone for these catastrophic losses becomes louder, it’s easy to see how political entrepreneurs in both major parties might succeed in further mobilizing public opinion against not just the CCP but China, more generally. But if responsible approaches to countering the CCP are crowded out of the public discourse, Washington’s legitimate criticisms of the Chinese government will not be addressed.
For now, we anticipate three domestic and foreign policy consequences from recent trends in public opinion that together may constrain the political space for a more balanced yet still competitive approach to dealing with China.
One, Trump will double down on his criticism of Biden’s alleged ties to China, to the detriment of earnest bipartisan discussions regarding how to deal with Beijing’s actual threats to American security.
Having witnessed in 2016 the astonishing success of Trump’s attack-dog manner of engaging in all-out assaults against his political opponents, GOP strategists likely will encourage this impulse in 2020. In the case of Biden, their ears surely will have picked up the divided response to his recent campaign ads attacking China, which reveal split voter preferences regarding the best way to criticize the CCP without inciting Asian discrimination. If the electoral contest between Trump and Biden appears close, Republicans may look to use the China card on Biden, with the hope that his response could morph into a wedge issue with his political base or independents.
Second, domestic political forces will ratchet up popular tensions, inevitably stoking local discrimination against Chinese people in America and Americans in China. In addition to imperiling the mental health and physical safety of outgroup members, this could crudely amputate important bilateral people-to-people ties built over decades. Without these basic guardrails of cultural diplomacy and educational exchange in place, the two countries could witness even more aggressive confrontations in the years ahead. Once inflamed, racial and ethnic hostilities are difficult to dampen, and often will drive states to ill-considered actions.
Finally, the U.S. drive for competition will encourage China to respond in greater kind. While some forecast that Beijing may emerge from the pandemic with renewed confidence in the strength and resilience of its institutions, as it did after the 2008 financial crisis, others speculate the CCP is increasingly anxious to quell growing doubts about its legitimacy at home and overseas. Unable to afford any display of weakness, it likely will return aggression with more aggression. This, in itself, should not be cause for alarm. Washington can expect some degree of tension with Beijing if the two are to cohabitate more harmoniously in the longer run.
While continuing to lobby for a proper investigation of COVID-19’s origins, Americans must not punish the Chinese people for the actions of the Chinese government. Doing so would not only unfairly endanger the mental and physical health of many, but also needlessly fuel CCP criticisms of the U.S. The only clear beneficiary of an America perceived as irresponsible is the CCP, which will continue subjugating its own people while concealing its portion of the blame for the virus through acts of media suppression and international coercion.