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How Beijing will respond to the anti-China fervor sweeping the US

In response, Beijing is likely to use its economic might and trigger a wide-ranging and flexible toolkit of coercive measures that it has used strategically throughout the world.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

President Trump has used his executive power to take a hatchet to 40 years of America’s China policy. His administration has called for a “whole-of-government” approach to counter Beijing’s unfair economic practices, initiated a damaging trade war, banned Chinese telecommunication equipment from domestic networks, and implemented stringent regulations to vet Chinese investments in sensitive industries.

In a novel development, the administration has begun coaxing individual states to aid the federal government in its anti-China fervor. Speaking to the National Governors Association in early February, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that “competition with China is not just a federal issue…It’s happening in your states with consequences for our foreign policy, for the citizens that reside in your states, and indeed, for each of you.”

The administration’s enlisting of states in the broader U.S.-China competition has significant economic implications for subnational actors. Increasingly hawkish incumbents, as well as congressional candidates, could provoke economic pushback from Beijing. Many of these officials have bought into the Republican Party’s strategy of carrying out an “anti-China assault” on the campaign trail, scapegoating Beijing for the coronavirus outbreak in the United States instead of acknowledging the Trump administration’s central role in the country’s failure to prepare itself properly.

While Washington is correct to scrutinize Chinese investments in sensitive technologies and pursue reciprocal trade and economic relations, politically motivated, opportunistic anti-China rhetoric could threaten individual states’ cooperation with China, one of the few remaining productive aspects of the bilateral relationship. Indeed, as Hu Xijin, editor of Chinese tabloid Global Times, tweeted, “Beijing is already preparing to take necessary punishment measures against some members of the US Congress, the state of Missouri, and relevant individuals and entities.”

China-skeptic sentiment in the U.S. government and on the campaign trail is not a new phenomenon, but the coronavirus pandemic and resultant economic crisis have afforded many politicians the cover to push hawkish policies. Some of their proposals would benefit the United States, including reducing U.S. reliance on Chinese-made pharmaceutical products, a motion broadly backed by both Republicans and Democrats. But many of their arguments are politically motivated and risk further inflaming U.S.-China tensions and painting Beijing as an enemy, à la the Soviet Union during the Cold War, rather than a competitor.

Senator Tom Cotton made waves last month by arguing that U.S. universities should not accept Chinese STEM students given the chance they might return home and use their training to drive China’s scientific advances. Senators Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio have also joined the fray, advocating that the United States reduce its reliance on China and punish the country for failing to contain the COVID-19 outbreak. The attorneys general of Missouri and Mississippi have filed lawsuits seeking damages from Beijing for the coronavirus.

Incumbents, however, are not the only ones wagering their political futures on China. Senate candidates in Tennessee, Arizona, and Alabama, among other states, have adopted overtly hawkish stances toward Beijing, blaming China for the pandemic, painting their opponents as soft on the country, and using the China threat to push anti-immigration policies.

Amid Washington’s anti-China turn, preserving cooperation at the state level will be critical to maintaining any semblance of productive bilateral ties going forward. As Los Angeles Deputy Mayor of International Affairs Nina Hachigian said at a Brookings panel last year, “cities and states…can take advantage of the trade, investment, students, climate change cooperation, culture, and tourism China offers without really having to balance the broader national security, geopolitical, and human rights questions.”

It is no coincidence that three of the past four U.S. Ambassadors to Beijing previously served as governors of states with deep links to China: Terry Branstad (Iowa), Gary Locke (Washington), and John Huntsman (Utah).

The aforementioned politicians may be fighting to relocate supply chains outside of mainland China and decouple vast sections of the two countries’ economies, but their rhetoric may also lead Beijing to move Chinese-owned businesses out of the United States or cut imports from the country. Despite bilateral tensions, there is clear evidence that Chinese investments in the United States can be beneficial. In the midst of the trade war, a Chinese takeover of a failing paper mill in Maine helped revitalize a local community. In Tennessee, Chinese investments in automotive parts, mattresses, and porcelain manufacturing have benefited the state’s economy. There is a real risk that Chinese companies, seeing both politicians’ and the American public’s growing distaste for China, could simply up and leave.

A more likely outcome of the growing antagonism, however, is for Beijing to engage in economic coercion, which it uses to try to force nations, companies, and officials into doing its bidding and punish those who do not. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has developed a wide-ranging and flexible toolkit of coercive measures that it has used strategically throughout the world.

When South Korea agreed to host the United States’ Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system, Beijing did not impose tariffs on Seoul despite its displeasure. China instead restricted flights to South Korea, drummed up nationalist sentiment among the Chinese public to boycott South Korean goods, and even shut down China-based outlets of Lotte Group, the Korean company on whose land THAAD was installed.

China took a similar approach with the Philippines following a 2012 dispute over claims in the South China Sea. In order to cause significant economic pain, Beijing tightened quality controls on agriculture exports from Manila while stemming the flow of Chinese tourists to the Philippines. And most recently, Beijing threatened and then followed through on a boycott of Australian beef after Canberra called for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus.

Beijing coerces not only countries but also private companies for perceived transgressions. Marriott, Delta Airlines, and Zara all faced the prospect of losing business in China after listing Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Tibet as sovereign nations. Last fall, Beijing suspended broadcasts of NBA games after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong.

If public sentiment across the United States continues to turn against China, Beijing may begin adapting its methods of economic coercion to retaliate against states and politicians it perceives as hostile to its interests.

Indeed, China is clearly paying attention to U.S. domestic politics and state officials’ views of China. A think tank in Beijing recently ranked all 50 governors on their attitudes toward China, information the CCP values as it attempts to mold the views of officials outside of Washington. As Dan Blumenthal has noted, Beijing “split[s] Americans into ‘friends of China’ who might lobby on their behalf and others who refuse to do so [and] will not be granted access to China’s massive market.”

In recent years, Beijing has provided glimpses of what economic coercion in the United States might look like. During the initial stages of the trade war, China’s retaliatory tariffs disproportionally targeted Red states critical to Trump’s 2016 election victory. Furthermore, China identified key officials able to influence U.S. policy, such as then-Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and levied tariffs that threatened jobs in and exports from their states in a bid to pressure the politicians to split with Trump.

These actions are possible harbingers of economic pressures to come. Beijing may be tempted to pressure local officials to influence policy from the bottom up. As the aforementioned think tank report explicitly notes, Beijing believes that “State-level officials ‘enjoy a certain degree of diplomatic independence,’” and that “Governors can ignore orders from the White House.”

Recent downturns in public opinion in both countries, the result of several years of increasing competition, and an emerging view that the other views the pandemic as a strategic opportunity, could even see Beijing move beyond tariffs and drum up anti-U.S. sentiment. It could even encourage citizens to boycott American products, the political and economic effects of which could be devastating.

While the United States imports more from China than it exports, China-bound exports supported around one million U.S. jobs in 2018. According to the U.S.-China Business Council, 42 states counted China among their top five export destinations in 2019. Chinese FDI, which peaked at $46.5 billion in 2016, dropped to just over $3 billion in 2019 — a decline of over 90 percent. Industries ranging from energy, agriculture, and manufacturing could be negatively affected by an exodus of Chinese investment, a freeze on new Chinese FDI into the United States, or increased tariffs on or bans of imports.

Given the astronomically high unemployment rate and ballooning federal and state debt levels, U.S. states are in no position to lose more investments or export-supporting jobs. Senator McConnell’s recent call for states to file bankruptcy highlights their increasingly gloomy economic prospects, and already over 25 percent of state revenues have disappeared due to the coronavirus.

The United States certainly needs to diversify its supply chains so as not to depend so much on China. Washington has already rolled out several measures to better screen Chinese investments in the country and limit sensitive technology exports. The increasingly prevalent and politically expedient one-size-fits-all anti-China position espoused by many state-level politicians, however, could endanger China-state ties, the locus of the two countries’ economic relationship, and threaten China-owned U.S.-based companies that pose no national security threats and provide hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Photo credit: Kaliva /
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