Why Americans Fear China’s Rise
Why Americans Fear China’s Rise

Why Americans Fear China’s Rise

The BIDEN administration is right in characterizing China as involved in “fierce competition” with the United States. But the rigidity of the challenge stems not only from Beijing’s global ambitions, massive resources, ruthless tactics and communist thinking. The competition between the US and China is also fierce because the US has unilaterally wasted much of its competitive advantage and is not bringing its best game on the field. On the contrary. Its economic, technological and military advantages are at stake; its policy is polarized and dysfunctional; and its social structure is frayed. Although the United States seeks to confront these vulnerabilities, increased awareness of them drives a preoccupation with the challenge from China and a tendency to overestimate the nature and extent of this challenge. This has reinforced U.S. threat perceptions, and it has fueled a tendency to blame Beijing for problems largely made up in the United States.

THE STORY has established that the US economy was eroded by job losses to China. Beijing, we are told, has been eating America’s lunch for decades. There is no doubt that Beijing has engaged in a wide range of mercenaries and often unfair trade practices with the aim of scoring points for China and increasing its competitive advantage. But the United States itself has created opportunities for China to do so both fairly and unfairly. Can the Chinese be blamed for the loss of American jobs as American companies voluntarily relocated them in pursuit of the comparative advantage that China offered in terms of labor and operating costs? It is also true that Beijing’s economic diplomacy – especially under its “Belt and Road Initiative” – ​​opportunistically scores points against the United States, often at the expense of transparent business practices and good governance in the countries China targets. But for whatever reason, the United States does not offer these countries many viable or attractive alternatives in terms of comparable levels of infrastructure investment and financial assistance. As China researcher Evan Feigenbaum has observed“whining is not competitive.”

A more recent and obvious example is the obloqué against Beijing over COVID-19. Yes, the virus originated in China, and Beijing probably did less than it could have to limit its spread internationally. But it is still unclear how much of this lapse can be attributed to the inevitable spread of a new virus before the accumulation of data makes its existence clear, or to the systemic reluctance of communist apparatchiks to recognize and report bad news. The latter explanation does not reject the former. More importantly, the severity of the subsequent effect of the virus in the United States was primarily the United States ‘own fault, especially given that Washington had several weeks’ advance warning that Chinese leaders did not themselves possess. In short, Beijing has some responsibility for COVID-19 reaching the United States, but there is no credible evidence that Chinese leaders intended this to happen, and it would be ridiculous to try to hold them accountable. for how the response to the outbreak was. rumbled after the virus arrived in America.

There have also been fears of Beijing’s “influence operations” in the United States, which has been characterized as “hidden, coercive or corrupt” and as designed to undermine democratic institutions, freedom of speech, and even American sovereignty. But this grossly exaggerates both Beijing’s intentions and its potential for success. Most Chinese influence operations in the United States are aimed at simply promoting Chinese views and interests through public diplomacy, lobbying, and cultural and academic programs. The American intelligence community finished that Beijing’s influence efforts during the US presidential election campaign in 2020 were aimed at “shaping perceptions of US policy and strengthening China’s global position” instead of actually changing the outcome of the election. Beijing certainly exploits the openness of the United States to pursue its agenda of influence and is also engaged in covert operations in the United States for various purposes. But whether China’s overtly influential activities succeed in winning hearts and minds depends on how receptive Americans really are to Chinese propaganda. If they are, it’s another homemade vulnerability – already evident in the widespread embrace in the United States of disinformation and conspiracy theories. But as China researcher Susan Shirk has noted, “the damage we could inflict on our society by our own overreactions” to Chinese influence operations – by launching yet another “Red Scare” – is far greater than the damage done by these operations.

Finally, alarming reports from various sources routinely highlight Chinese advances in the military, technology, space, and cyber empires that threaten U.S. national security. Most recently, these have shown Chinese developments in the field of hypersonic missiles, nuclear weapons launches and artificial intelligence. These all pose serious challenges for the United States to face, but the dangers are exaggerated when China’s military capabilities are equated with aggressive intentions, or when Beijing is presumed to be determined to assert global supremacy in any sector. (Chinese leaders probably believe that sharing technology leadership with the U.S. and other countries is more achievable and sustainable.) More fundamentally, the U.S. fear of being outcompeted by China in these sectors is due in part to the recent erosion of long-standing U.S. benefits through inattention, misplaced priorities and / or resource constraints.

NONE of this is meant to downplay the scale of the challenge from China. On the contrary, competition between the United States and China is fierce, structural and systemic. China is challenging the status of the United States after the Cold War as the only superpower, the richest and most influential country in the world and the supposed leader of the international order. It offers its government model of authoritarian socialism as a viable alternative to democracy. And it is mobilizing its government sector to maximize any Chinese competitive advantage over the United States in trade and technology. But none of these challenges are existential or insurmountable. Beijing does not seek to eliminate American power, wealth and influence or to eradicate democracy and capitalism. Rather, it seeks a multipolar world in which China is also a “leader”, its interests are secure, and its model of government is accepted as legitimate. However, even this vision represents an extraordinary challenge for a United States whose political and economic models are stumbling, whose international reputation has been eroded, and whose interests are not entirely secure. These vulnerabilities lend themselves to the China challenge to a zero-sum or win-take-all competition where neither side would find coexistence with the other system acceptable.

The historical context of these trends is important. The fact is that even before its recent domestic troubles, the United States has had more than its share of problems recognizing and adapting to changes in the global balance of power since the end of the Cold War, 9/11, and the global financial crisis. Whether one agrees with the notion that the United States is in relative strategic decline, it is clearly no longer (if it ever has been) a global hegemon that can set the terms of its engagement with the rest of the world at will. The United States no longer enjoys “precedence” either globally or in the Western Pacific, and this further reinforces the perceived threat posed by a more powerful and competitive China. The prevailing American reaction to these new historical circumstances, however, seems to fluctuate between denying that the United States’ precedence has been lost and a tacit acceptance that it has – but with a will to restore and maintain it, presumably forever time. Maybe the latter is possible, but only if America first gets control of its domestic house.

Meanwhile, the United States appears to oppose the recognition of its relatively deteriorating historical position in the world, channeling its discomfort and domestic insecurity into a zero-sum competition with China – based on a misrepresentation of Beijing’s intentions and an apparent rejection of any symmetry. in US-China relations. This line of thinking is reflected in several aspects of the Biden administration’s approach to Beijing.

First and foremost, its overriding priority is on competition, with only occasional recognition of the potential or usefulness of bilateral cooperation. This emphasis on fierce competition is predictably due to the intensity of the Chinese challenge and the increasingly apparent gaps in US competitiveness. But the lesser emphasis on cooperation seems to indicate an aversion to interactions that Beijing could use to exploit U.S. vulnerabilities and score points against Washington. Perhaps more likely, Biden’s reluctance to publicly promote cooperation with China – except on a handful of transnational issues such as climate change – probably reflects a desire to avoid showing up accommodating or weak in dealing with Beijing when the United States is so politically divided and the “China threat” narrative has been so strongly embraced by both sides. But it risks negative long-term consequences. While substantial cooperation with Beijing will ultimately be imperative, Biden appears reluctant to accept the domestic political risks of pursuing it – or at least making it explicit and trying to defend and explain it.

This helps explain the administration’s overall stance on “engagement” with China. Only rarely is the word used to refer to constructive interaction with Beijing. Instead, it is generally avoided on the grounds that “engagement” was an earlier political approach that failed because it was based on false premises – especially the notion that it would lead to political liberalization in China. Accordingly, in May 2021, Kurt Campbell, the White House Coordinator of Indo-Pacific Affairs, declared “the period broadly described as engagement has come to an end.” Another White House official said in November 2021 that “the Biden administration is not trying to change China through bilateral engagement” because “we do not think it is realistic.”

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