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China and the perils of bipartisanship

Going all in on a military, economic, and cultural competition with China — and forging a wafer-thin bipartisan consensus to do so — is the height of folly.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

Not a single congressional Republican voted for the recent $1.9 trillion stimulus package.

Not even the so-called moderate Republicans, the handful that backed the second impeachment of Donald Trump, deigned to support an economic package that helps Americans hardest hit by the pandemic. The entire Republican caucus didn’t just snub the Democrats. They ignored the Republican mayors, as well as 41 percent of Republican voters, who approved of the legislation.

Naturally, the unified Republican caucus complained that Joe Biden was not displaying his promised bipartisanship. It didn’t seem to occur to them that bipartisanship is a two-way street. How soon they’ve forgotten that nearly every Democrat in both houses voted for the Trump administration’s initial bailout package in March 2020.

Nevertheless, the Biden administration remains eager to find common ground with Republican legislators. The president has high hopes that he can attract Republican support for an infrastructure bill this summer, given that rebuilding American bridges, highways and the like was a priority for the previous administration.

But here’s a truly troubling scenario. Casting around for another unifying topic, the Biden team has seized upon China.

Democrats and Republicans alike are concerned about what China is doing these days. There is bipartisan disgust over what’s happening in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Hawks in both parties have long warned about Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea. Despite wildly different economic ideologies, Democrats and Republicans have joined hands in their opposition to Chinese trade and currency policies, cavalier approach to intellectual property rights, and efforts to dominate markets in the Global South.

On the face of it, however, the bill that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is starting to pull together is just another infrastructure initiative. It is meant “to shore up U.S. supply chains, expand American production of semiconductors, create 5G networks nationwide and pour billions into investments into U.S. manufacturing companies and hubs, among other proposals,” according to The Washington Post.

But it’s not just infrastructure. The measure is specifically designed to bolster the full-spectrum U.S. fight against China.

“Hating China is a big bipartisan thing, and Schumer has the opportunity to take ownership of being against China,” points out Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the right-wing American Action Forum.

According to the most benign reading of this bipartisanship, the Biden administration will be manufacturing an anti-Chinese version of the Sputnik moment when, in 1957, the Soviet launch of the first artificial satellite prompted a frenzy of U.S. government spending on science and technology to catch up to the Russians. “The danger China poses could fundamentally reorder U.S. attitudes toward government’s role in domestic economic growth, research and development in ways that leave the United States stronger,” writes liberal columnist E. J. Dionne.

A robust Industrial policy is indeed preferable to, say, the tariffs that the Trump administration levied against Chinese products. If fear of China overcomes the conservative distaste for government interventions in the economy, should progressives really be looking this particular gift horse in the mouth?

Full court press

The Quad is the latest multilateral mechanism through which the United States is putting pressure on China. The four countries—the United States, India, Japan, and Australia—all have their separate beefs with Beijing. But last week was the first time that the heads of these four states met as part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which was set up in 2007.

The statement the four leaders recently published in The Washington Post makes no mention of China. It’s all about cooperating on climate, the pandemic, and strengthening democracy. But that’s just being diplomatic. As Alex Ward writes in Vox, China has “gotten into a deadly fight over a disputed border with India, started a trade war with Australia, hacked the US government, and for years used its might to push Japan around on economic and military matters.” Trump tried to rally the four countries behind his own anti-China agenda. But his efforts were compromised by a suspicion in many quarters that he’d just as soon negotiate a deal with China behind the Quad’s back as coordinate a united front.

The current president, by contrast, has moved steadily away from a preference to engage China. “Biden had to be reprogrammed on China” during the presidential campaign, one of his advisors said. This reprogramming explains Biden’s harsher tone during the election, such as calling Chinese leader Xi Jinping “a thug.”

As president, Biden has been careful to sound notes of both amicability and threat. Cooperation to deal with the climate crisis is certainly a possibility. But promoting deals with China is not going to win the new president support in Congress or, for that matter, with the American public. China’s unfavorability rating rose to 79 percent in a recent Gallup poll, its worst showing in more than four decades. A shift has taken place in just the last couple years. According to a Pew Research Center poll, 67 percent of Americans now have “cold” feelings toward China, compared to only 46 percent in 2018.

The appointment of Kurt Campbell as the Indo-Pacific coordinator at the National Security Council indicates the direction of the administration’s new take on Asia. Campbell was a key architect of the “Pacific pivot” under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the Obama administration. He’s not going to play quite the anti-China role that Matt Pottinger did on Trump’s NSC, but he’s a firm believer in strengthening bilateral alliances and multilateral coordination to contain China.

In a January 2021 piece in Foreign Affairs, Campbell channeled Henry Kissinger in asserting the need for the United States to restore a “balance of power” in the region. What that really means is that the United States, with the help of its friends, must push back against China to reassert its own Pacific authority, both militarily and economically. Practically, Campbell explains, this means that:

Although Washington should maintain its forward presence, it also needs to work with other states to disperse U.S. forces across Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. This would reduce American reliance on a small number of vulnerable facilities in East Asia. Finally, the United States should encourage new military and intelligence partnerships between regional states, while still deepening those relationships in which the United States plays a major role—placing a “tire” on the familiar regional alliance system with a U.S. hub and allied spokes.

Over the years, China has steadily eroded U.S. power not only in Asia but internationally. It used the anti-globalism of the Trump years to expand its influence in international institutions such as the United Nations and its associated bodies like the World Health Organization. Where It has encountered difficulties in expanding its influence, such as with international financial institutions, it has simply created its own. Shortly after Biden’s election, China joined the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (which includes the countries of Southeast Asia plus Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and Japan). This move, plus Beijing’s recent investment agreement with the European Union and Xi Jinping’s announcement that China would also consider joining a modified Trans Pacific Partnership, suggests an economic counteroffensive to the U.S. ramping up of multilateral security arrangements.

These moves have not gone unnoticed. On the eve of their first visit to Asia this week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin III wrote in The Washington Post, “If we don’t act decisively and lead, Beijing will.”

The Biden administration decision to focus on beefing up U.S. economic competitiveness, particularly in the tech sector, is in some ways an admission of defeat. China has outmaneuvered the United States in the global economy. The only way Washington can compete at the moment is by throwing its weight around militarily and trying to play catch-up on the home front.

Is China a useful threat?

It’s hard to argue with the importance of investing in critical U.S. industries. Republicans and laissez-faire economists generally oppose such a policy of picking winners and losers in the marketplace, except when it comes to the military-industrial complex. Only a large external threat can move such ideologues to accept the obvious: governments can and should shape markets.

But here are some problems with hitching this industrial policy to the “China threat.”

The global economy needs an overhaul to address the climate crisis, rampant economic inequality, automation, and other developments. This is no time for the United States to turn its economic relationship with China into a Cold War competition. Sure, let the two countries compete over who makes the best laptop computer, but cooperation is essential for developing new rules for the global economy. A robust industrial policy doesn’t preclude cooperation, unless it feeds into a rancor and a parochialism that makes cooperation near to impossible.

The pandemic has exposed the fragility of global supply chains, with the collapse of international trade and countries initially competing for scarce medical equipment. This is not a new problem, however. Shelley Rigger writes in her 2013 book on Taiwan about a moment “in 1999 when a power transmission tower on a remote mountain in central Taiwan toppled, blacking out the island’s high-tech industry for a day. The interruption nearly doubled the world price of memory chips and the supply of TFT-LCD flat screens took six months to return to normal.” Natural (and unnatural) disasters can wreak havoc on the supply of essential components.

Ensuring an indigenous supply of computer chips may well protect the United States in the short term, but it does little to address the underlying problem of supply chains. A return to a time when every country produced all of its essentials or went without is not really an option, considering the importance of global trade routes going back to the Silk Road and even before. Reshoring and relocalization are both essential in this age of climate crisis. But a reordering of the global economy that accommodates such changes should be a matter for coordination not Cold War competition.

In addition, an industrial policy that prioritizes gaining a competitive edge over China could overshadow the other major focus of the Biden administration, namely reducing the national and global carbon footprints. High-tech products often rely on key outputs of the extraction industry, like cobalt and lithium. An industrial policy built on minimizing carbon emissions and the use of rare minerals, rather than besting China, would pick very different economic winners and losers.

When it comes to foreign policy, bipartisanship is not necessarily a virtue. The two major U.S. parties came together around waging the Vietnam War, confronting the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and fighting “terrorism” in the wake of September 11. The first failed, the second was outrageously expensive and nearly ended in nuclear apocalypse, and the third led the country into the infamous “forever wars.” Selectively challenging China over its human rights record, its overreach in the South China Sea, or the conduct of its businesses around the world (like this fish meal operation in Gambia) is appropriate. Going all out in a military, economic, and cultural competition with the Asian superpower—and forging a wafer-thin bipartisan consensus to do so—is the height of folly.

This article has been republished with permission from Foreign Policy in Focus.

New York, NY — November 22, 2020: U. S. Senator Chuck Schumer speaks during media briefing on COVID-19 (lev radin /
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