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The Clash with China Is Coming

The United States and China have been on a collision course for a generation. COVID-19 has brought it to a head.
May 26, 2020
The Clash with China Is Coming
Xi Jinping delivers a speech on November 15, 2012 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)

Public and elite opinion in the United States has turned heavily against the People’s Republic of China. While some of this turn predates the present crisis (spurred by Hong Kong crackdowns, Xinjiang concentration camps, and the like), it was ratified by the events surrounding COVID-19, and in particular the revelations that the Chinese Communist Party leadership was less than transparent in its dealings with the rest of the world concerning the virus.

We have had other strategic challenges over the last 20 years, but what makes the China case distinctive is that, unlike Islamic terrorists or Putin’s Russia, China is a major strategic peer competitor. And it has received comparatively modest attention relative to its size, wealth, capabilities, and potential over the past two decades.

America seems ready to correct that mistake, partly thanks to a general outrage against the PRC. But as Aristotle taught, it is only praiseworthy to get angry in the right way at the right time and for the right reasons.

By that measure, how are we doing so far?

For the time being, this question is best addressed in terms of domestic policy. While campaigning for office, Donald Trump signaled that he would pursue a shift in America’s posture toward China, (though he did not explain clearly what this shift would look like). After taking office, President Trump began a trade war with China as part of an attempt to negotiate a new trade regime. The president’s focus on China has been almost purely commercial.

But other parts of his administration seem to be thinking about a more global re-orientation. The strongest (and most negative) statement was issued late last year by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a speech titled “The China Challenge.” The comparatively moderate title belied the tone and content of the speech, which located China not only as a geopolitical challenge but an ideological one as well. Pompeo’s language was reminiscent of the Cold War.

The present crisis has provided new rhetorical ammunition for this position. But most of this is bluster. As yet there are no new policy proposals on how to confront China. And it is not even clear if the new rhetoric represents a serious re-thinking of the U.S.-Sino relationship, or is merely a convenient Republican electoral gambit.

But it’s worth noting that Joe Biden and the Democrats have been ratcheting up the rhetoric as well.

This is a rare instance where the parties’ positions are not being driven by negative polarity, but rather by an urge to outbid one another along the same vector.

This spectacle may not be edifying, but it does create the potential for unifying public opinion into an anti-China posture and making real policy changes easier to achieve for whoever is president in 2021.

As we move toward that date, the events of the past few months will recede, so it’s worth noting that the case against China goes beyond the present circumstances.

People seem to have forgotten the 2014 Office of Personnel Management hack—which remains the most significant cyberattack on the U.S. government (of which we know). It is still not widely known how many individuals have been permanently compromised on the subject of China. Similarly, the role that China was allowed to play in our strategic supply chains, and the likelihood that they exploited this role in worrisome ways receives much less attention than it should.

But crafting an effective response means understanding the nature of your challenger. For instance: 2019 was not the inflection point when China became a problem. Already in 2009, the Chinese Communist Party had begun a tightening of restrictions and control in their country—a trend that has escalated through Xi Jinping’s reign.

And beyond that, much of what China has done over the past few decades, from the use of protectionist economic strategies to widespread theft of intellectual properties to increasingly muscular defense of its regional territorial interests are simply par for the course for rising powers.

Meanwhile the discovery that all the manufactured goods we’ve bought from the Chinese and all the debt we’ve sold to them has not hastened the arrival of liberal democracy on their shores has triggered a petulance divorced from cold-eyed prudence.

The unpleasant truth is this: China has not changed. The only thing that has changed is our ability to recognize reality. The United States was happy to see China as a trading partner when it was profitable to do so (not just for the country as a whole, but for many, many individual financial and political elites). And when it was profitable, we consoled ourselves with the belief that the same vague historical forces that had imploded the Soviet Union would somehow impel China to become a liberal state.

Which was the foreign policy equivalent of believing in the economic free lunch. We deluded ourselves into believing that the course of action that was easiest and most profitable for us would also magically be the course that solved the most intractable problems of an authoritarian challenge.

That mistake was made at the level of government policy. But today we see it being replicated at the level of individual businesses and institutions which, when confronted with a challenge from the Chinese, decide that it’s best to knuckle under. Consider the NBA debacle with the Houston Rockets and Harvard’s cancellation of a talk by dissidents and critics of the CCP.

The salient feature in each case is less official Chinese disapproval or pressure than the acquiescence of major American institutions to Chinese preferences. (Hollywood is already ahead of the game and now routinely tries to anticipate the preferences of the Chinese regime and shape its products accordingly.)

These incidents underscore how the U.S. government’s posture toward the PRC ultimately filtered down to shape the behavior of private companies and institutions; even if public opinion coheres on changing America’s relationship with China, there may be resistance from various corporate and institutional interests.

Meaning that part of any real government response to China will entail bringing along not just public opinion but also harmonizing the interests of the private sector with those of the government.

Going forward, it will be useful to try and separate serious political discussion on China from the low-level trolling that is now second nature to much of our media, for example the useful idiots in the United States whose commitment to identity politics is so total that they think nothing of equating criticism of the Chinese Communist Party with anti-Chinese racism.

By the same token, it should be separated from desires to use China as a foil in thinking about policies at home. The past month alone has seen articles from the mainstream press praising China’s approach to population surveillance and information control, even recommending elements of it as a model to the United States and other democracies in these troubled times.

The point is not that these are distasteful suggestions—though they are—but that they introduce China as an ideological symbol into an otherwise unrelated domestic policy debate.

From either side, however, the phenomenon is roughly the same: a desire to maintain or gain some advantage over domestic enemies, with the subject of “China” becoming just another front in our never-ending culture war.

This is not to say that we must resolve our domestic quarrels as a precondition to effectively grappling with China; if anything, the reverse is more likely to be the case—that the necessity of dealing with a genuine strategic challenge might compel us to suspend the trivial cultural skirmishes that otherwise dominate our political life. Perhaps it is fortunate that, whether it’s (depending who you ask) 70 or 2,000 or 5,000 years old, China isn’t going anywhere.

David Polansky

David Polansky holds a PhD in political science from the University of Toronto. He is at work on a book about the origins of populism and nationalism.