Donald Trump made China America's Public Enemy No 1 – but there has been little amelioration of policies since Joe Biden came to office. Photo: AFP / Andrew Caballero-Reynolds

Democrats and Republicans may be at each other’s throats when it comes to domestic policy, spending and the size of the US government. But they are on the same page on foreign policies, protecting American supremacy or stifling any country that is in a position to challenge US interests.

In doing so, the US government has spent lavishly and demanded that its allies to do the same to stifle the “China/Russia threat.” Former president Donald Trump renamed the Asia-Pacific region “Indo-Pacific,” increasing “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOPs) and reviving the the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad. Trump also demanded that NATO allies increase defense spending to 2% of their gross domestic product.

Current President Joe Biden not only carried on with Trump’s foreign policies on China and Russia, but has in fact intensified them. Biden wanted to formalize and expand the Quad into a military alliance that would include South Korea, Vietnam and others.

However, huge spending on the military has undermined US economic growth. Increased spending on defense meant less funding allocated to education and other socio-economic programs. This misallocation of resources was a major reason the US economy was slowing down, made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic and US-China trade wars.

Escalating tensions in the Asia-Pacific and politicizing the origins of Covid-19 have worsened the security environment, climate warming and the pandemic.

Holding frequent FONOPs in the Asia-Pacific region has triggered an arms race of some sort between the US and China. Each country is spending more and more on weapons development and production. The FONOPs and China’s tit-for-tat response have a real possibility of turning the situation into a hot war.

Public support

Still, as costly and dangerous as US foreign policies are, the majority of the US public support them. For example, most American farmers, the most harmed by the trade wars, supported Trump and his China policies because they really believed China is a threat to US national interests.

This raises the question: Why do most Americans support these self-inflicted harmful policies? One answer is that the “yellow peril” narrative is not far below the skin for many Americans, believing China is a national economic and security threat.

Another is the role of groups that benefit from confrontational policies. US foreign policies have turned out to be hugely profitable not only for the military-industrial complex (MIC), but also for the financial institutions, think-tanks and media.

Weapons producers required large loans form banks to fulfill contractual obligations, for example. Publishing “subjective” news about adversaries increased readership. Think-tanks and pundits received large rewards to spin the anti-Chinese rhetoric.

So there is a real incentive for these groups to cheer and lobby the government to implement confrontational policies. Case in point is how the MIC has succeeded in inventing an enemy, shaping public policies by manipulating pubic opinions against it, making generous election campaign donations to both major political parties and dispersing weapons production across the country.

Inventing a threat or ‘enemy’

In the aftermath of World War II, the US turned against the Soviet Union because it was communist, accusing it of expanding the “evil” ideology to Europe and the world. The US first instituted the Marshall Plan, showering countries with money that were willing to toe the line on American values and ideals. The recipients were also required to spend the funds on US goods and services.

The US then established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a military alliance composed of democratic Western nations to counter Soviet “militarism.” The formation of NATO cemented US global leadership and proved profitable for the MIC because it could not only sell arms to the US but to its allies as well.

However, spending more on defense against a “perceived” enemy undermined economic growth at home, because less was allocated to education and other socio-economic programs.

At the same time, escalated tensions with the Soviet Union heightened the security risk in Europe and at home. The Soviet Union responded with the establishment of the Warsaw Pact, a military club consisting of itself and Eastern European allies.

The conflicts between the US/Western Europe and the Soviet Union/Eastern Europe led to the Cold War under which both sides spent hugely on defense. The world was dangerously walking toward a nuclear holocaust.

The late president Dwight D Eisenhower recognized the dangers of the MIC in his departing speech, warning that more money spent on weapons procurement meant less money for socio-economic development. But the US politicians ignored Eisenhower’s concerns because doing so was seen as protecting America and securing public support.

The collapse of the Soviet Union thus brought joy to Americans because it was supposed to generate a “peace dividend.” The money that was being spent on weapons would be re-allocated to education, health care and employment creation programs, they thought.

However, the opposite was true; instead of bringing economic growth, the economy slowed down. This was because the states that depended on defense spending such as California turned into economic basket cases. Furthermore, declining military spending hurt the bottom line of the MIC, forcing them to lay off workers.

To reverse the economic and financial misfortunes, an “enemy” had to be created. China became the ideal candidate because it was communist, Asian and, most important of all, in a position to challenge US hegemony in almost if not in all fields.

China’s successful “socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics” development architecture allowed the country to become a near peer power to the US. The Asian power was able to reject the US-imposed “world order” and compete with the US in most if not all fields, including technology and military.

China’s rise was unacceptable to both the Democrats and Republicans, in that foreign policies were configured to maintain global dominance and protect national security. What’s more, politicians on both sides of the political divide were obligated to defend the MIC’s interests.

Generous election campaign donations

Politicians, particularly those sitting on the congressional Armed Services Committees and representing weapons-producing states, received generous campaign donations from the MIC. This was meant to influence the lawmakers to make favorable decisions. It worked, as the overly bloated US defense budget of more than $750 billion attests.

The politicians gained because they were seen as “bringing home the bacon” or looking after the nation’s interests. Increasing weapons purchases translated into greater economic and employment opportunities.

Anti-China politicians were also seen as patriots, defending America from its “enemies,” though no country has ever threatened America. Demonizing China was largely responsible for Trump winning the White House in 2016.

Shaping public opinion

Anti-China and anti-Russia sentiments were manipulated by politicians with the help of the media and pundits. For instance, The Washington Post published the allegation that the coronavirus that caused the Covid-19 pandemic was leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology without bothering to verify the claim.

The same was true on other issues; the media and pundits kept on accusing the Chinese communist government of committing genocide and forced labor in Xinjiang without any credible evidence. Indeed, it could be argued that the charges did not make much sense and were contrary to what was happening on the ground.

How can a government be committing genocide when the Uighur population has actually increased? The automation of cotton picking and the garment industry made the “forced labor” narrative questionable.

Without alternative information sources plus the fact that the “yellow peril” sentiment was never far below the surface, the anti-China rhetoric succeeded. According to the Pew and other opinion polls, more than 75% of Americans view the Chinese government negatively.

Spreading weapons production across the country

To improve popular support, weapons manufacturers have spread production across the US. This was meant to give the impression that “what is good for the MIC is good for the country.”

So there is no surprise that US politicians, senior officials and even presidents acted as arms salesmen, influencing “allies and friends” to buy US-made weapons against the “authoritarian” communist Chinese and other “like-minded” governments. As indicated earlier, weapons manufacturing is big business, at least for the few that benefited directly from it.

Serving the national interest?

Whether US confrontational foreign policies serve the national interest would depend on one’s perspective. But there is evidence to suggest that these policies have heightened national security risk, undermined economic growth, widened the rich-poor gap and increased poverty.

Provoking China and Russia has resulted in an informal Russia-China alliance. The two countries are increasing military cooperation in the forms of joint military exercises and weapons development. Their combined nuclear and conventional arsenals would give the US and its allies a run for their money, increasing the prospect of a “mutually assured destruction” war.

The trade wars with China have worsened US economic woes, increasing production costs and consumer prices. Worse, the US trade deficit with China has actually increased and manufacturing activities decreased, the very reasons for the trade wars.

Focusing on national defense instead of education and health care has diluted the quality and productiveness of the American labor force. In the era of globalization, this is a no-no, because poor-quality and unhealthy workers will not be able to compete in the world market.

Besides, the production of weapons is actually a waste of scarce resources. This is because no one, including the China or Russia hawks in the US, wants a war, particularly one that is based on fake information.

In the end, whether US confrontational foreign policies are justified or not depends on whether China and Russia are really threatening America. But so far, there is no indication that either country has the ability or the desire to do so. Indeed, it is reasonable to suggest that what is perceived as “Chinese and Russian aggression” is actually tit-for tat responses to US provocations.

Ken Moak taught economic theory, public policy and globalization at university level for 33 years. He co-authored a book titled China’s Economic Rise and Its Global Impact in 2015. His second book, Developed Nations and the Economic Impact of Globalization, was published by Palgrave McMillan Springer.