The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has been fretting about the hardening U.S. elite consensus on China for some time now. For one thing, the gap between elite and public attitudes about China appears to be growing. China-bashing is one of the few activities that retains bipartisan support inside the Beltway and on the 2020 campaign trail. Indeed, the one 2020 candidate who had initially sounded less hawkish on China sounds pretty hawkish. Former ambassador Michael McFaul recently asserted in these pages that, “The United States is losing the ideological battle with China,” which is not a sentence I would have ever expected McFaul to write.
Registered voters, on the other hand, are much less exercised about the China threat. Consistent with public opinion polling in recent years, they are more concerned about issues like terrorism than any great power rivalry. Based on Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey data that will be coming out soon, even the sectors of the population that support a current trade war with China only do so in the hopes of this pressure yielding a better trade deal in the future.
It’s okay if elites have a different foreign policy approach toward grand strategy than the vox populi — after all, elites are ostensibly supposed to be paying closer attention to these issues. That said, it is worth noting that the elite consensus primarily consists of foreign policy experts rather than China experts. In fact, the latter group recently published an op-ed in this paper suggesting that the emerging hawkish view on China was eliding a few facts. Most notably: “We do not believe Beijing is an economic enemy or an existential national security threat that must be confronted in every sphere; nor is China a monolith, or the views of its leaders set in stone.”
This brings us to the New York Times story by Ana Swanson that ran this past weekend titled “A New Red Scare Is Reshaping Washington.” Swanson observes the revival of the Committee on the Present Danger, led by Steve Bannon and Frank Gaffney, and concludes, “Fear of China has spread across the government, from the White House to Congress to federal agencies, where Beijing’s rise is unquestioningly viewed as an economic and national security threat and the defining challenge of the 21st century.”
Swanson’s article set off a flurry of complaints among China hawks. Linking China hawkery with the paranoid ravings of Bannon and Gaffney is a surefire way to foment unease about the rightness of the position. China hawks are therefore pushing back on Swanson’s story. Writing in the National Review, Jonathan Tobin allows that “Steve Bannon is a soft target” but also argues “the genuine worries of people on both the right and the left about the objectives of the world’s most powerful totalitarian state can’t be dismissed so easily.”
If you think that I am going to be able to solve this dilemma in the last few paragraphs, you are sorely mistaken. This is not a problem that can be solved so quickly. I suspect that the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts will be returning to this debate again and again and again over the next few years. For now, I simply want to point out four things to bear in mind going forward.
First, I am pretty sure that most China hawks in Washington are overestimating China’s power relative to the United States. As I argued in “The System Worked,” China is undeniably an economic great power, but it possesses far less structural power than the United States. Even its most revisionist policy initiatives, like Belt and Road, are less than meet the eye. Exaggerating Chinese power is a great way to ensure rising levels of misperception on both sides of the Pacific.
Second, methinks China hawks are underestimating the costs of their hawkery. Beyond the costs of the trade war, there is the drying up of Chinese foreign direct investment into the United States. It has fallen by close to 90 percent since President Trump took office. If hawks want to say that the costs of decoupling are worth the preservation of U.S. national security, that is a debate worth having. But I am not hearing that from most China hawks, and I am certainly not hearing it from the Trump administration.
Third, speaking of the Trump administration, China hawks need to think this new Red scare policy all the way through to the end. If you genuinely believe that China is a peer equal to the United States, that means we are back to bipolarity. That implies attracting as many allies to the U.S. side as possible, and promoting the U.S. system of governance as a model to others. The Trump administration is, how you say, doing the exact opposite of that. So even if you are a hawk, that does not mean the current administration knows how to handle any of this.
Finally, supporters of the prior status quo need a better response as well. Some foreign policy analysts do not agree with going full hawk on China, but they also seem to think that the prior status quo was blinkered as well. Those advocating for continued trade and exchange with the People’s Republic of China also need to say what the benefits have been from this approach to date, and what the benefits will be in the future.
This debate will not end tomorrow. That is good. This is a topic that will require serious debate for at least the next decade.