Flags of China and the United States
Opinion
5 min read

America’s China syndrome

As the US presidential election nears, Democrats and Republicans have defined their stances towards Beijing. Sadly for Europe, says Hanns W. Maull, they won’t find a common position.  

A new cold war or not – the relationship between America and China is on a downward spiral and the list of contentious issues is getting longer almost by the day. As the US presidential election approaches, Washington has been upping the ante, with leading members of Donald Trump’s team publicly targeting the Chinese Communist Party’s ideology, its habits of gathering intelligence by means fair and foul, and its economic policies. As Bill Barr, the US Attorney General put it in a speech: “The ultimate ambition of China’s rulers isn’t to trade with the United States. It is to raid the United States.” 

China is playing an important role in the battle for the next presidency and Congress. In the Democratic Party draft election manifesto, China gets 18 mentions, as opposed to seven in 2016, when Hilary Clinton ran for president. Her platform talked about “managing China’s rise” and pressing it to “play by the rules”, while Joe Biden’s is now all for “pushing back” against Beijing. Even in the light of significant continuity, like a call for “a fair system” for global trade, it is a strong signal of how the power equation has shifted in China’s favour. 

Democrats warn against a new cold war with China 

The Democrats’ platform warns against a new cold war and pledges not to avoid “self-defeating unilateral tariff wars” with China. Yet their strategy does show considerable similarities with the original US containment strategy in the face of the Soviet Union in the late 1940s. Its key elements are to push back “where we have profound economic, security, and human rights concerns about the actions of China’s government”, to cooperate where possible, and to control the risks of confrontation, for example, through arms control.  

This also sounds like the European Union’s take on China as “a partner, a competitor and a systemic rival”. Like the Europeans, deemed “natural partners”, the Democrats argue for a comprehensive response, covering economics, military security, and politics. A Biden administration would tackle economic imbalances and China’s unfair trading practices and hold China responsible for its contributions to global warming. It would rely on nuclear deterrence and a robust military posture and challenge China to uphold human rights and democracy. 

Biden and the Democratic Party have set out a coherent and comprehensive – if somewhat jaded – grand strategy to restore America’s standing in the world and meet China’s challenge. Trump and the Republicans have not. The Trump team’s recent attacks on China betray the shrill and hysterical edge of an administration caught on the wrong foot by Beijing. America is in bad shape and 72 percent of Americans believe “the country is on the wrong track”. Trump and his Republicans could lose the election, possibly by a landslide, and their call to arms against China is, on the one hand, a desperate attempt to turn the tide. 

Trump’s team calls for a crusade against China’s “tyranny” 

On the other hand, it is more than just electioneering. Starting with Vice President Mike Pence in October 2018 and culminating in a recent speech by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump’s current team has called for a crusade by the “free world” against China’s “tyranny”. The previous team of former generals – then Secretary of Defense James Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. MacMasters and Chief of Staff John Kelly – was relentlessly realist in comparison: America was to preserve peace through strength with allies and partners that “magnify our power.” Pompeo prefers to remain vague about alliances.  

Clearly, Trump and his team do not think much of traditional allies and have little faith in dialogue with China. Instead, they appear to view US business as a good partner for their crusade. They have named and shamed American companies that have allegedly cow-towed to Beijing and described business leaders as targets of – and even pawns in – Chinese influence operations. Offering inducements and hinting at punishment for companies that won’t join the crusade, Barr has said he wants “public and private sectors […] to work together [… ] to win the contest for the commanding heights of the global economy.”   

Whoever takes office in the White House will need to face China’s challenge to US leadership 

Yet such an alliance is unlikely. Despite misgivings, American business has benefitted hugely from engaging with China and shows little interest in cutting back. An even bigger problem for Trump is his lack of credibility as the champion of the “free world”. His administration has failed its allies and undermined American democracy. Trump has routinely broken his oath of office, torn down much of the American diplomatic machine, and destroyed any vestige of consistency – he himself undermined the crusade against China by applauding Xi’s policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and allegedly begging him to support his re-election. 

But whoever takes office in the White House in January 2021 will continue to struggle with the gauntlet China has thrown down in a challenge to America’s global leadership. Will Americans rally around their flag to defend their country’s traditional international role? Don’t hold your breath. Some old and new cold warriors would like China to become the common enemy to unite a desperately divided America. But that simply won’t happen. Trump and his Republican followers cannot and will not work with the Democrats – not even on China. That is bad news for Europeans, who will no longer be able to count on US leadership in an ever more tense world. Europeans will have look out for themselves.  

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