Analysts and pundits, along with other governments, see this effort as a move toward balancing China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region. While much analysis has centered on how the AUKUS announcement antagonized France, my ongoing research suggests that emphasizing this particular coalition may risk further racializing U.S.-China competition.
Why does this matter, in foreign policy? Highlighting a partnership that corroborates narratives of racial/civilizational conflict — even unintentionally — can be dangerous, stoking false impressions of primordial clashes, irreconcilable interests and inevitable conflict.
U.S.-China relations are on thin racial ice
International rivalries are not naturally or inevitably cast in racial terms, research shows. Although racial identities may seem “natural and fixed,” they are socially constructed categories — made and remade as people justify physical and structural violence against supposedly inferior groups. Unfortunately, both history and recent events have primed U.S.-China competition in the 21st century to be racialized.
Racism has a long history of coloring U.S.-China relations, along with much of U.S. foreign policy history. As I examined in “The Picky Eagle,” xenophobia fundamentally shaped the United States itself as U.S. leaders rejected the possible absorption of neighboring peoples they saw as inherently inferior. Similar race-based arrogance fueled early U.S. contacts with Asia: coercing Japan to trade in 1854, subjecting the Philippines to imperialism in 1898 and pursuing profits in China via the Open Door Policy.
Meanwhile, Congress prohibited immigration from China to the United States from 1882 until World War II under the Chinese Exclusion Act. Australia also excluded Chinese immigration under the White Australia Policy, while Britain joined other empires in aggressively exploiting China, including through the Opium Wars.
Troubled pasts — even heavily racialized ones — do not doom nations to perpetual conflict, but they offer kindling for those who would do so. President Donald Trump racialized threats more than any other president in living memory, labeling Muslims as terrorists, Mexican immigrants as rapists and Black protesters as thugs.
While the Biden administration has refrained from using similarly racialized language, it does not operate in a vacuum. Like it or not, the consequences of current U.S. decisions pursuing “strategic competition with China” will be shaped in part by this history of racialized confrontation.
Racializing competition raises long-term risks
As racial identities harden, competing groups increasingly assume their differences to be irreconcilable, deepening perceptions of threat and risks of conflict. Racialized competition exacerbates international problems of communication and trust, which are crucial for both navigating potential crises and bargaining over peacetime issues like climate change.
For example, fears of a “Yellow Peril” drove U.S. leaders to undercut the Anglo-Japanese alliance after World War I, disqualify Japan from great-power status and accelerate the descent toward World War II in the Pacific. Diverging racial identities may even drive allies to keep each other at arm’s length.
Further, casting racial “others” as inherently inferior can end up dehumanizing the adversary, lowering moral barriers to the human costs of war. Leaders and publics alike may therefore be more willing to wage war without mercy, inflicting extensive civilian casualties among “others” in the service of strategic objectives.
Fortunately, leaders’ sensitivity to these risks can help generate restraint. For example, U.S. policymakers worried that using nuclear weapons in Korea or Vietnam would leave the United States “vulnerable to the charge that it was willing to use nuclear weapons against non-Whites only.” Indeed, their awareness of the Cold War impact of the “global color line” helped facilitate domestic desegregation and civil rights reform.
Actions speak louder than words
Racialization is a public phenomenon, and inflammatory actions can overwhelm calming rhetoric in the court of public opinion. President George W. Bush reassured domestic and global audiences after 9/11 that “the enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends.” Nevertheless, his decision to invade Iraq was a boon to al-Qaeda recruiters because it played right into their narrative of a United States at war with Islam. Within the United States, assaults against Muslims spiked, and suspicions and violence still endure 20 years later.
Research suggests that avoiding public spectacles when collaborating with White-dominated allies and re-centering multiracial coalitions like the Quad can undercut such currents. Indeed, the United States enjoys a strong strategic position in this regard: Its interest in a “free, open, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region” is shared by a wide and multiracial array of countries, including Japan, India, South Korea and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. With such a diverse cast of potential partners, any prominent action that reinforces narratives of the “Anglosphere” represents a foreign policy “own goal.”
Amplifying the role of race in U.S.-China competition represents a threat to both sides, raising obstacles to mutually beneficial cooperation and making military clashes more likely. As experts warn about the dangers of escalating conflict, an underappreciated flash point exists in individuals who see their own biases reinforced by the overall course of events. As it continues refocusing partnerships on the Indo-Pacific region, the Biden administration would be wise to keep these risks in mind.
Richard W. Maass is associate professor of political science at Old Dominion University and author of “The Picky Eagle: How Democracy and Xenophobia Limited U.S. Territorial Expansion” (Cornell University Press, 2020). Find him on Twitter: @richardmaass.