Playing The China Card

Any effort to lean on the external threat of China as a basis for overcoming domestic divisions at home is unlikely to succeed and likely to harm U.S. interests at home and abroad.

Mikyung Lee for Noema Magazine
Credits

Ryan Hass is a senior fellow and the Michael H. Armacost Chair in the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution. He is also a nonresident affiliated fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center.

“We’re in competition with China and other countries to win the 21st century,” President Joe Biden declared last month during his first address to Congress. Through plans he has touted in recent weeks, Biden has called for Congress to invest upwards of $6 trillion in America’s future in order to outpace its challengers.

In so doing, Biden drew a page from America’s Cold War playbook. President Dwight D. Eisenhower made a similar appeal in 1955 for a national network of highways, in part to ensure resilience in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack. Following Soviet missile advances two years later, Eisenhower revived the theme to request funds to boost America’s higher education system to meet its national security needs. In 1961, standing in the shadow of the Soviet Union’s success in putting cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit, President John F. Kennedy requested that Congress provide urgent funding for landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.

Bipartisan Appeal Of Activism

Calling on Americans to come together to meet challenges posed by China also serves a more immediate purpose for President Biden. Biden ran for president on a theme of mellowing partisan divisions and promoting national unity. Amid the fractious partisanship of the current moment, China policy has become the most accessible meeting place for Democrats and Republicans. No other foreign or domestic issue provides the same potential for galvanizing support for building bridges and roads, expanding broadband, investing in America’s caring economy, increasing semiconductor production in the U.S. and accelerating progress on electric cars and emerging technologies.

As Tarun Chhabra, Scott Moore, and Dominic Tierney argued in the Foreign Affairs article, “The Left Should Play the China Card,” “In times of war or heightened geopolitical competition, the federal government has raised taxes, tightened economic regulation and increased spending on science, infrastructure and social services, boosting opportunities for marginalized groups and reducing wealth disparities.” They urged progressive politicians to frame a domestic reform agenda around rivalry with China and suggested that doing so could attract broad bipartisan support, including from conservatives.

There is a clear logic for the Biden administration to pursue this line of argumentation. Unlike when President Obama called on the American people in 2010 to rise to this generation’s “Sputnik moment” by investing in infrastructure, education and research, there now is broad public awareness of the challenges China poses to America’s place in the world. Events in Hong Kong and Xinjiang carry resonance for Americans in ways that they did not even a decade ago. Public dissatisfaction with China is at an all-time high. There are over 175 pending pieces of China legislation on Capitol Hill as of this month.

“Amid the fractious partisanship of the current moment, China policy has become the most accessible meeting place for Democrats and Republicans.”
Downside Risks

While the payoffs of playing the China card could be tangible if done skillfully, this approach is not without risks and uncertainties. First, America today does not resemble 1950s Cold War America. As Janan Ganesh has observed in the Financial Times, Eisenhower’s America was a stable, relatively cohesive churchgoing society of low immigration and consensus politics. Conscription was still in place. The impulse toward national sacrifice had been imprinted on a generation of men and women who had met the call of duty and prevailed in World War II. Media outlets were few, and their voices were respected. National leaders debated events using a common set of facts.

None of these conditions apply to America today. Biden’s America is defined by political tribalism and raucous individualism. Mobilizing the public to meet a geostrategic challenge is likely to prove to be a tougher task than was the case 60 years ago.

Foreign policy challenges also are not at the forefront of national thought in the same way they were in the aftermath of World War II. During the Trump administration, scholars at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace conducted extensive fieldwork in Colorado, Nebraska and Ohio on American middle-class attitudes toward foreign policy. The authors included current National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and State Department Policy Planning Director Salman Ahmed. They concluded:

In other words, China may not serve as the ticket to political mobilization or bipartisan purpose that some hope for. In fact, such mobilization may not even prove necessary to advance elements of Biden’s agenda.

A recent poll by Data for Progress and Vox found that Americans support keeping the U.S. ahead in technological innovation regardless of the “China factor.” In the poll, respondents were divided into two groups. In the first, respondents were told that increasing public investment in science and technology would help in “maintaining our competitive edge over China.” In the second, they were told it would help in “maintaining our competitive edge over Europe.” In the end, support for the anti-China message was nearly indistinguishable from the anti-Europe one.

“Events in Hong Kong and Xinjiang carry resonance for Americans in ways that they did not even a decade ago. Public dissatisfaction with China is at an all-time high.”
Risks Of A Race To The Bottom

Second, Democrats and Republicans have different incentives for how the U.S.-China relationship is managed. As the party out of power, Republicans do not own the consequences of deteriorating U.S.-China relations and do not fear being blamed for a downturn in relations under Biden’s watch. If Republicans come to believe Biden is wedded to preserving China as a beachhead of bipartisanship, they could bid up their asking price for playing along. As Dan Slater noted, “If Republican bellicosity towards China quickens, Biden might feel pressure to keep pace.”

It also is worth keeping in mind that the Republican party presently is searching for its own unifying message for healing its internal divisions. As former NSC Senior Director for Asian Affairs during the George W. Bush administration Mike Green recently observed, “The one thing that Mitt Romney and, say, Ted Cruz definitely agree on is [that] China’s a problem… If you want to build a brand as a 2024 Republican candidate that you know will unify the party, it’s China.”

Already, resources are being mobilized for this purpose. A group of Republican consultants have launched a political organization, Stand Up to China, and have begun running messaging campaigns in states that will host early Republican primaries, such as Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. According to Axios, the campaign “suggests an effort to elevate an issue at the top of GOP voters’ minds in the 2024 race or leverage it on behalf of some yet-unknown candidate.”

Republicans such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell likely will be cautious about supporting legislation that creates an appearance of the Biden administration securing political wins on China. McConnell is on record stating that he is “100 percent focused” on blocking the Biden administration. Senator McConnell and others have clear memories of President Clinton grabbing traditional Republican wedge issues — welfare and crime — and using them to Clinton’s advantage. They likely will be motivated to prevent China issues from assuming a similar role to welfare and crime during the Clinton era.   

“If Republicans come to believe Biden is wedded to preserving China as a beachhead of bipartisanship, they could bid up their asking price for playing along.”
When Politics Trump Policy, The Costs Can Be High

Democrats would be wise not to overheat the political discourse on China. The Trump administration’s record on China offers a cautionary tale of the costs and consequences of having politics drive China policy. Trump ran for office in 2016 with a promise to be strong on China where others before him had been weak. Trump’s tariffs were sold domestically as a tool to compel Chinese capitulation to U.S. concerns about unfair trading practices. While Trump’s China tariffs fit the narrative from a political standpoint, they were a loser from the start from a policy perspective.

Unsurprisingly, Trump’s trade policy had little success in forcing desired changes in Beijing’s economic practices, but it did cause plenty of harm to the U.S.: losses to U.S. farmers requiring more than $28 billion in federal bailouts, the destruction of an estimated 245,000 jobs, an estimated $316 billion reduction in U.S. GDP and an increase of an estimated $1,277 per family in costs of consumer goods. As COVID-19 took over the national narrative in 2020, President Trump and members of his administration employed racially charged language to blame China for the pain many American households were experiencing.   

A key lesson of Trump’s politicization of China policy is that short-term expediency does not automatically align with long-term national interests. When America’s China policy is refracted through a political lens, there is pressure for policymakers to prioritize posturing for domestic audiences with inflated projections of strength, even when doing so undermines other foreign policy objectives. Compromises with China come to be viewed as appeasement. The trouble is, relations between great powers rarely lend themselves to one side outright prevailing over the other on any given issue. Major power relations involve frequent negotiation and action between proud actors with competing interests.

“The rise in anti-Asian racism causes America to lose some of the strength of one of its greatest comparative advantages — its ability to attract the best ideas and brightest minds to its shores.”
Risks Of Stoking Racism

The politicization of China policy carries other negative potential side effects as well. One of them is racism. American history has confronted a pattern of rising nationalism and intensifying great power rivalry leading to surges in racism and erosion of civil liberties. From attacks on ethnic Germans during World War I to the internment of Japanese during World War II, Senator McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunt at the onset of the Cold War, and anti-Muslim sentiment following September 11, there are more than enough data points to draw a trend line.

Frustratingly, that trend line already appears to have secured a new data point in 2020-2021. According to a recent report from California State University at San Bernardino’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, in 2020, anti-Asian hate crimes surged by 146% across 26 of the largest jurisdictions in the country. Anti-Asian hate crimes rose by more than by 130% in Boston and 830% in New York City. There were over 3,800 attacks reported on members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community in 2020. The trend has intensified in the first quarter of 2021, with an additional 169% rise in attacks on Asian Americans. According to recent Pew polling, 81% of Asian Americans say they feel like violence against them is increasing.

In addition to the human toll on victims and their families, such events tear at the fabric of American society and tarnish America’s image on the world stage. They also cause America to relinquish one of its greatest comparative advantages — its ability to attract the best ideas and brightest minds to its shores.

Already, there have been declining numbers of international students studying in the U.S. In 2020, the United Kingdom for the first time overtook the U.S. as the top destination for Chinese students. The reduced inflow of foreign talent into the U.S. carries downside risks for America’s future competitiveness. Sixty percent of the most highly valued technology companies today were founded by immigrants or children of immigrants, including Google, eBay and Intel.

“In 2020, the U.K. for the first time overtook the U.S. as the top destination for Chinese students.”
Undermining Alliance Cohesion On China

Politicizing China policy also could complicate America’s ability to coordinate with allies and partners on China. In their opening months, the Biden administration’s investment in strengthening cooperation with allies on China has been rewarded. There has been new momentum among the four “Quad countries” (Australia, Japan, India, the U.S.) in advancing a common agenda to address challenges facing the Indo-Pacific region. Washington also successfully synchronized rollout of sanctions on Chinese human rights abuses with Canada, the European Union and the U.K. Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Suga released a leaders’ communique that referenced their shared interests relating to Taiwan, the first such occasion in over five decades of Taiwan being featured in such a document.  

The more that domestic politics comes to drive decisions on China policy in the U.S., though, the more risk there is that alignment of policy with allies would shrink and differences with Beijing would become cast in ideological terms.

If American policy decisions on China come to be seen by allies as transactional outputs of domestic politics, or as an effort to undermine China’s stability, they will have less attraction to allies and will cause allies to view the U.S. as a less predictable and reliable partner. American allies and partners each have their own complicated relationships with Beijing. One common feature, though, is that a Cold War Manichean framing has zero purchase among them.

Actions Generate Reactions

Lastly, the more American politicians treat China as a pinata for purposes of scoring domestic political points, the more likely Beijing is to respond in kind. Since assuming the presidency, Xi Jinping has demonstrated consistency in not taking a punch without throwing a counterpunch.

If restraints are removed, Beijing has a plethora of options of American pain points to exploit, from providing diplomatic or material support to America’s foes to increasing its use of incentives and disincentives to weaken America’s alliance bonds, conducting disruptive cyber operations, seeking to mobilize non-governmental groups who oppose the U.S. government or its policies, heightening pressure on U.S. companies operating in China, or harassing and detaining American citizens. Since such Chinese courses of action surely would invite American retaliation, they are not China’s plan. But they also are not beyond Beijing’s imagination, should relations deteriorate to the point of outright enmity.

“If China policy is defined in purely political terms, it will alienate rather than attract allies.”

To outpace China, the U.S. will need to renew its competitive capacity and build a better governed, better educated, more innovative, healthier and freer society. It is a fact of life that China will loom large over discussions about how the U.S. can best revive its competitive edge. Unlike as recently as the Obama administration, it no longer is possible or necessarily desirable to insulate China policy from politics. The political features of this complex relationship can help build domestic support for an ambitious foreign policy that demonstrates America’s unique capacity to do big things well on the world stage. This will be a balancing act, though. The degree of politicization of China policy will need to remain limited enough to preserve space for the Biden administration to reach decisions for sound strategic reasons.

The Biden administration seems to appreciate the need for striking a balance between policy and politics on its approach to China. Biden appears comfortable operating in a complex world that lacks black and white dividing lines between friend and foe. He recognizes that a globally hostile view of China could undermine his ability to achieve his priority objectives, such as progress on climate change, global economic recovery or enhancements to the world’s public health infrastructure.  

He and his team have been outspoken in condemning anti-Asian racism. They have halted use of racially inflammatory language by government spokespeople and led efforts to raise awareness of the national imperative of recognizing and halting discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Similarly, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has made clear the limits to how the U.S. seeks to pursue competition with China, emphasizing that the U.S. does not seek a Cold War, but rather is focused on ensuring that the U.S. and other democracies are strong, resilient and meeting the needs of their people.

In addition to modeling responsible statecraft, the Biden administration likely also will need to urge its Congressional supporters and public validators to exercise similar discipline over “playing the China card” in domestic politics. If China policy is defined in purely political terms, it will alienate rather than attract allies. If the Biden administration or its Congressional supporters are seen as seeking partisan advantage on China policy, it also could complicate efforts to advance Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda.

Lastly, members of the media will need to confront hard decisions on how to report on public figures that trade in nativism and xenophobia. Such individuals should be regarded as partisan hacks and not presented as strategic thinkers. Through their words, such figures tarnish America’s global appeal, erode its social cohesion and diminish America’s domestic dynamism.

Ultimately, as I argued in my recent book, “Stronger: Adapting America’s China Strategy in an Age of Competitive Interdependence,” the scale of the China challenge can be incrementally useful in alerting the U.S. body politic to the importance of undertaking domestic renewal and rebuilding leadership on the world stage, but the project will ultimately need to be justified on its own terms. Any effort to lean on the external threat of China as a basis for overcoming domestic divisions at home is unlikely to succeed and likely to harm U.S. interests at home and abroad.