It has become conventional wisdom inside the Beltway to declare that a new bipartisan consensus has emerged around a tougher, less restrained approach for challenging China’s rise. According to this view, the United States belatedly has awoken to the China threat, and now that it has done so, it will move aggressively to counter China.
This so-called conventional wisdom does not accurately explain the debate inside the United States on China, though. Political debate over the direction of China policy is nothing new. Indeed, there has been a political divide in the United States on China since the normalization of relations in 1979. The real divide is not between Democrats and Republicans, but rather between political centrists and the polar ends of the political spectrum. Over the past two years, the debate on China has moved from the political center to the progressive and nationalist wings. Even so, it remains as yet unclear how long it will stay there. The debate is far from settled, despite the efforts of some to suggest that the United States is entrenched on a more confrontational course.
Broadly speaking, the Beltway consensus on China these days represents an alignment between progressives on the left and nationalists on the right. Others have sensed an opportunity to revise China policy to address their particular concerns and have joined the chorus, including national security hawks, economic nationalists, and grand strategists.
At some level, we have been here before. In the early 1990s, there was a similar alignment among the likes of Nancy Pelosi and Jesse Helms, both of whom rode waves of disillusionment with China following the Tiananmen massacre to advocate for a significantly tougher approach. Then, as now, a newly elected president entered office inclined to take a firmer stance toward China. In the case of President Clinton, the business community prevailed over time in pushing China policy in a more pragmatic direction.
There are distinct differences between that era and now. At only a fraction of its current national strength, China of the 1990s was not considered a threat to the United States. Few debated whether China would seek to spread its Leninist political system to other countries, or if it sought to push the United States out of Asia. Cyber intrusions were still a subject relegated to science fiction, and tension over technology issues hardly registered.
Even so, three important lessons drawn from that period can help inform the current moment. The first is that China’s actions have significant bearing on elite attitudes in the United States toward the bilateral relationship. In the early 1990s, Tiananmen was a huge blow to China’s image, and one for which China was singularly responsible. Today, there is no standalone event that has crystallized attitudes, but rather a multitude of irritants that have aroused antipathy. Beijing seems to have reversed momentum on economic reform, grown indifferent to the deepening concerns of the U.S. business community, intensified efforts to control domestic society, and shown ambitions to displace the United States from its traditional leadership role in Asia, if not more broadly. Cumulatively, these events have soured attitudes toward China.
The disillusionment arguably has been most intense within the American business community. In the early 1990s, the business community led the call for the Clinton administration to shift its approach toward China. At that time, China’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, was advancing reforms to create a more welcoming environment for foreign firms, providing an incentive for the U.S. private sector to support deepening ties. Now, the situation is reversed. Xi Jinping’s economic policies are cementing in place an uneven playing field for foreign firms to compete against their Chinese counterparts, causing key voices within the corporate community increasingly to withdraw their advocacy for improving ties. This is the second key factor—the attitude of the business community matters greatly.
Political rhetoric centered on China likely will remain charged through the 2020 elections.
The third key lesson is that the president of the United States plays an incomparable role in setting the tone for the relationship. Even though President Trump did not cause the current realignment of politics on China, he has amplified it. Political rhetoric centered on China likely will remain charged through the 2020 elections, as candidates seek to out-tough each other on how they would bring Beijing to heel.
What comes after the Trump administration is less clear. While there has been growing intensity and activism on China from the populist and nationalist wings, there is not yet an American consensus on China. Public polling data by Gallup, Pew, and the Chicago Council affirms this point. For a significant majority of Americans, China is not a central concern or preoccupation.
The lack of public support for a confrontational approach toward China will continue to constrain risk-taking vis-à-vis China. In the absence of public coalition-building for a more aggressive approach toward China, it will be difficult for policymakers to sustain a purely confrontational approach. As the Trump administration’s efforts to use tariffs to compel Chinese capitulation on trade frictions has made clear, the bilateral relationship is a two-player game, and China has ample tools to retaliate against American actions. Unless the American public is persuaded of the need to make material sacrifices to blunt China’s rise, they will grow weary of accepting direct economic pain now for the uncertain prospect of long-term gain. This is a point the Chinese know well and use to their advantage.
Given these dynamics, a key question is whether the sense of urgency that exists inside the Beltway around confronting China will serve as a bellwether of an enduring hardening of public attitudes toward China, or whether the American public will instead temper the passions of the Washington policy community. While the answer presently is unknowable, it likely will be influenced by China’s internal and external behavior, and the American business community’s level of enthusiasm for pursuing constructive and results-oriented approach toward China. Whether a more confrontational American policy delivers meaningful Chinese concessions on U.S. priorities also will factor into calculations, as will the outcome of the 2020 election, which either will return the political pendulum to the center or keep it at the periphery.
Buckle up, because the debate inside the United States on China is far from settled.