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Foreign Policy

Washington’s China Policy and the Risks of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Jun 05 , 2020

As stressed in a very recent White House report, China has been front and centre in Washington’s prioritization of states-based threats, and the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated US policymakers’ embrace of great power competition with China. The presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, has displayed his “tough-on-China” credentials to defuse Trump and his supporters’ accusations that he is too friendly with the US’ competitor. These accusations are part and parcel of the Republican Party’s electoral strategy aimed at blaming China for causing the COVID-19 pandemic through an initial cover-up, and accuse Democrats of being soft on China – for instance by accusing Joe Biden of not supporting Trump’s early China travel ban. These accusations have reached their grotesque climax through heavy-handed campaigns supported by influential Trump supporters that have accused Biden of being complicit to China, responsible for “stealing our jobs” and “killing our people”.  As US public opinion more readily embraces the Trump administration’s conspiratorial narratives of victimhood, and as US-China relations worsen, it looks like a Biden presidency will not make a big difference in the US posture towards China.

In fact, as the afore-mentioned White House report spells out, the Trump administration’s China policy is premised on a “whole-of-government” pushback, based on the employment of all sources of US power, including counterintelligence and strategic communications. Behind the US president’s crude mercenary instincts, an empowered national security establishment sought to increase US strength and military credibility, ramp up the confrontational rhetoric, and exert pressure on friends and foes alike to comply with US objectives. The high number of officials in charge of East Asian security and diplomatic affairs hailing from the military is indicative of this logic. For instance, in 2019, retired Brigadier General David Stillwell was nominated Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the Department of State. In the same year, the Department of Defense’s inauguration of a new deputy assistant secretary position with exclusive oversight over China matters and the promotion of a (hawkish) China specialist to the ranks of deputy national security advisor, a first in the history of the US National Security Council, testified to the importance assigned to China. Matt Pottinger’s uninterrupted service at the NSC under four very different National Security Advisors also testifies to his centrality in crafting the US’ China strategy.

Well ahead of the COVID-19 crisis, the US executive office had also changed the language register to wage an all-out communication war against China and its signature policies, such as the BRI. In the process, the legislative branch of government has followed suit by promoting the Congress-led National Defense Authorization, the Asia Reassurance Initiative, the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy, and the Uighur Intervention and Global Humanitarian Unified Response Acts. The recent bipartisan vote at the Senate in favour of the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act is indicative of the important role played by Congress in the China pushback agenda.

Still, the Trump administration has gone above and beyond the rethink on China policy that was brewing in Washington DC ahead of 2017. For instance, budget proposals for national security have been the highest since the height of the Iraq War, and—pandemic allowing—they are set to increase further the following year. Economic nationalists and a hyper-empowered national security establishment have informed the Trump administration’s heavy-handed strategy towards the Middle Kingdom, especially after the departure of more pragmatic voices, such as director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn. Their strategy went well beyond action/reaction dynamics proper of the security dilemma or the US government’s stated goals of taming Chinese economic predation and coercion “through strength”, not to mention the president’s more profane extraction of economic concessions. Contrary to the White House report’s reassurances, there was little room left for US-China cooperation or consultations, as evidenced by the US decision to shut down the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

In fact, Trump’s national security team and some of the economic hawks held a strong anti-China ideological bent. They were convinced that the Chinese Communist Party engaged in malign activities aimed at exporting its autocratic system of governance, ensnaring developing countries into neo-colonial “debt trap” diplomacy, hollowing out rich markets through economic predation, and sabotaging liberal democracies through sharp power. In light of this maximalist diagnosis, the Trump administration’s national security team, as well as senior economic officials, acted above and beyond the China-sceptical bipartisan and bureaucratic consensus within the Beltway.

Since the diagnosis is of malevolent international intent, the US government’s prescription to deal with China demanded a new a strategy somewhat similar to Soviet-era containment. As a result of that, the US government embarked  into a patchy, heavy-handed policy of containment, qualified by (partial) economic decoupling. Japanese analysts correctly recognized the presence of a fringe uber-hawkish group that favored “regime change” as partly informing the US government’s all-out-offensive, along with the “containers”, those in favour of weakening China, and the “balancers”, who recognized the need to concomitantly engage China. The latter faction is hardly seen in the government, however. Still, there is tension between the US administration’s national-security hawks and the “America First” economic nationalists.[1]

What does all of the above mean? If this assessment of US policymakers’ diagnosis of and remedies against the China challenge is correct, there’s a real danger of US-China confrontation spiralling out of control. As a consequence, the US strategic communications and economic offensives resulting from the pandemic must be understood not just as an electoral tool for Trump and the Republican Party, but as a by-product of the zero-sum logic of the security dilemma. A maximalist diagnosis of the malign intentions (and capabilities) of the counterpart feeds into an exaggerated pushback that, in turn, feeds the insecurity of the counterpart. Moreover, the downward spiral characterizing US-China economic and propaganda interaction risks crystallizing enmity, as public opinion in both countries becomes convinced of facile demonization. The Trump administration should be very careful what it wishes for when it frames the US relationship with China solely as one with a malign strategic competitor, because it might just get it. Raw great power confrontation will make us all poorer and less secure, especially during a pandemic.



[1] Hiroyuki Akita, ‘China hawks in Trump administration jostle for power’, Nihon Keizai Shinbun, 26 January 2019.

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