The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the messy divorce between the United States and China.
The Trump administration’s China policy may have drawn criticism from pockets of the political establishment for the drastic choice of method – a bilateral trade war. But its underlying sentiment against China has echoed back in a chorus of bipartisan agreement.
The latest development is Senate passage Wednesday of a bill that, if enacted, could stop some Chinese firms’ shares from trading on US stock exchanges. Non-US companies would be required to observe US audit standards and financial regulations. Publicly traded corporations would have to disclose foreign ownership or control.
The US Department of Commerce had decided just a few days earlier to require semiconductor manufacturers to obtain government approval before selling computer chips to Huawei – an example of the Trump administration’s determination to stop China’s rise to technological dominance.
That move followed a similar pattern of recent administrative actions. The US Labor Department prohibited the federal pension fund from investing in Chinese companies. The Federal Communications Commission barred Huawei and ZTE from access to the US market.
Over the past four years anti-China sentiment in both parties, Democratic and Republican, has grown more vocal and increasingly more confrontational. The Republicans have taken the lead in painting China as the primary threat to America’s way of life. The Democrats, fearful of losing elections, have joined the choir.
Now China hawks have used the opportunity presented by Covid-19 to attack the Chinese government’s image and ramp up the general discontent with China that has now become a core component of American political discourse.
But exactly how far does this go?
Think tank land
Since President Donald Trump took office, there has been a steady trend on Think-Tank Row to adopt the anti-China mantra. Covid-19 has taken that line and blasted it through amplifiers all across the US, especially in the media-industrial complex, where 24-hour news cycles increasingly portray China in a negative light.
For example, the Brookings Institution, an influential think tank with strong ties to the Democratic Party, has recently painted China’s long-term strategy as a revisionist attempt to deconstruct the liberal world order and displace the US as the predominant world power. What’s more, say Brookings analysts, Beijing’s foreign policy objectives with the Belt and Road Initiative are an absolute affront to democratic governance.
The think tank has not hesitated to claim that the Communist Party of China (CPC) is exploiting the Covid-19 crisis to discredit US leadership. And it calls for enhanced competition with China as the paramount strategic concern for the US.
Such sentiments echo Michael Pillsbury’s The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower, an influential book widely read within conservative circles in the US, especially by key figures within the Trump administration.
The Atlantic Council also has used Covid-19 to double down on its stance on China. In a recent webinar, one speaker compared Covid-19 to the bubonic plague, not missing the chance to point out that after the plague “Europe” experienced a renaissance that took it on a path to science, industrialization and ultimately democracy.
Covid-19 therefore is a “calling card” for America to restore its path of building multilateral coalitions and reinforcing the liberal world order without Xi Jinping’s CPC.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies has sharpened its grip on the China narrative by documenting bipartisan agreement on Asian policy on Capitol Hill.
Democratic Representative Stephanie Murphy, for example, said in a speech that there’s “an emerging consensus that the US and China have entered a … contest between opposed political and economic systems, and between different visions for the future of Asia and the world writ large. On the political front, it’s a contest between authoritarian rule and democratic rule. On the economic front, it’s a contest between a state-led model and a market-based model. It’s a contest in which the US must prevail.”
Then there are the myriad pieces of legislation aimed at accelerating the decoupling of the US from China-centered supply chains.
One of these is the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act of 2019, which directed the Federal Communications Commission to publish a list of equipment and services that would pose a national-security threat to US communications networks and prohibit the use of federal funds to do business with entities on that list.
Biden at center stage
Finally, within the Democratic Party itself, there has been a not-so-silent recognition that cooperative engagement with China is no longer a politically viable option.
During his vice-presidency, one of Joe Biden’s major tasks was to cultivate a good relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping. This was in line with the Obama administration’s strategy to foster a symbiotic relationship with China while incorporating it peacefully into the world order.
As late as May 2019, Biden played down the threat China posed to the US in response to the Trump administration’s trade war. In a public statement, Biden claimed that China was not competition for the US.
But as Covid-19 continues to pressure American leadership to rev up attacks on China, Biden has begun singing a different tune, especially as his campaign for president turns its focus on highlighting Trump’s horrific response to the pandemic.
A recent controversial campaign ad stated that Trump “rolled over for the Chinese,” and painted Biden as a figure who would have been tougher on China. Background images of Chinese security forces coupled with an abundant display of American flags assure all that Biden means business.
In recent days, Trump’s re-election campaign team has focused on reversing this image, sending a barrage of messages that display Biden as “cozying up to the Chinese” in one way or another.
And this spells trouble for democracy. Regardless of Biden’s personal feelings toward China or President Xi, the political situation at home will force him to take an increasingly hostile stance toward the country.
What’s more, the foreign policy advisers on Biden’s team are beginning to form a new outline of how America’s strategic policies would look under a Democratic White House. While Democrats still believe in international cooperation, they are becoming increasingly hostile to the thought of allowing China to benefit from that process.
Advocating for a “free world,” the Biden strategists are focusing their response to the spread of authoritarian and “illiberal regimes” around the world and beginning to question some of the assumptions underpinning US foreign policy for the past decade.
For example, in a Foreign Affairs article, Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs during the Barack Obama administration, and Ely Ratner, Biden’s deputy national security adviser in Obama’s second term, argued that the guiding principles of Obama’s stance on China were wrong.
In the last two decades, many American policymakers believed that commercial engagement with Beijing would gradually force China to liberalize and become a responsible stakeholder in the international rules-based order.
Instead, many within the Washington Beltway now lament China’s budding authoritarianism, its digital dystopia of surveillance, internet control, and the “social credit system” that supposedly rewards and punishes Chinese citizens on their political and social activity.
The US foreign-policy community is waking up to the reality that previous expectations about China were flawed and is now searching for a strategy to deal with the evolving geopolitical situation.
The danger is that the search will end in a truly awful choice. The experts may miscalculate the extent to which they can confront China and put the US on course to permanent decline.
The rhetoric of the New Cold War with China might supercharge the illusionary feeling that America is on a moral mission to beat its Chinese enemies – a rerun of the original Cold War with the Soviet Union.
Assuming that the US is an inherently virtuous nation and turning geopolitical competition into a Manichaean battle of good versus evil may backfire horribly for US decision makers.
If the US actually loses the competition, there’s no telling how political leaders and Americans will respond. Failure to adapt to realities has proved destructive in the past, especially the reality that something deep down is wrong with your institutions.
Until recently, the US business community declined to completely embrace economic decoupling. Many business leaders instead tiptoed around, playing safe with Chinese leadership while navigating the political currents at home. China, after all, is great for profits.
When Washington still believed the CPC would liberalize government and economy, most executives acquiesced to what many in the business community perceived as an unequal relationship.
But now, according to the American Chamber of Commerce, many US companies are beginning to voice their grievances more loudly, with distrust of China growing each year. This partially explains why Trump’s China policy has garnered a lot of bipartisan support – something the Chinese leadership clearly underestimated in 2017.
This reticence partially explains the difference in rhetoric between the Republicans’ more hawkish views on China and the emerging “2021 Democrats.” The Republican hawks favor taking a more aggressive posture on China while abandoning some of the multilateral approaches taken by previous generations. That’s what “America First” is all about.
In contrast, Democrats like Stephanie Murphy want to confront China by building stronger partnerships with trusted regional allies while developing alternative supply chains for the US business community.
Either way, one thing is certain: Cooperation with China is dead.
Hunter Dorwart is an independent researcher living in Washington, DC. He explores issues on a range of topics including startup financing, international trade policy, artificial intelligence, and geopolitics.