Xiaogu Xu | July 12, 2019
Responding To: The Future of U.S.-China Relations: Friend or Foe?
The Malign Influence of Domestic Politics on U.S.-China Relations
It is difficult to envision a diplomatic solution to the recent escalations of tensions between the United States and China. Issues that were once considered foreign policy have now been wholly absorbed into the domestic politics of the United States, now being understood by the electorate as domestic policy. This politicization of U.S.-China relations combined with strong political polarization creates a challenging environment for negotiating agreements. In this new era of tensions, any solutions to these conflicts will come at the behest of political, in addition to the pre-existing strategic and economic, interests.
Take, for instance, the current trade war launched by the Trump administration in February 2018. At its advent, many prominent Democratic politicians criticized the imposition of tariffs as unprompted and nonsensical. However, this escalation triggered a debate both in Washington and across the country about the future of U.S.-China relations. And over the past year, the rhetoric has shifted dramatically. Today, while those same leaders criticize the strategy, few would deny the need to balance against rising Chinese power. It’s as if the classification and subsequent treatment of China as a peer competitor erased decades of cooperation from memory.
Now that the politics surrounding U.S. foreign policy towards China has been pushed further to the right, opinions on the matter vary only in degree rather than in substance. The level of agreement across the aisle is stunning. When asked about the Trump administration’s tariffs on China, Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg replied that the President’s strategy did not go far enough to counter China. Mayor Buttigieg, a leftist by all accounts, proposed that the competition be approached as a “fifty-year problem” which focuses on technology as much as the economy to ensure that the terms US-China relations remain “favorable to the American model.” There is currently little deviance from this stance in either party, with the tendency, if anything, being to take an even tougher stance on the relationship.
As the 2020 presidential election approaches, one could expect to hear a further escalation of rhetoric from all candidates. President Trump is already leading this effort for political gain. During a recent meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, President Trump announced that he was “not ready to make a deal” to end the trade war because his administration is “taking in tens of billions of dollars of tariffs, and that number could go up very, very substantially, very easily.” This is quite clearly non-strategic competition for the sake of political clout: the danger presented by the politicization of U.S.-China relations. The Democratic party’s strategy of nominating a centrist candidate—who would ostensibly appeal to Trump voters—will naturally lead to the adoption of politically-successful policies from the current administration, including this competition.
At this point, the Trump administration itself is likely the only actor capable of deescalating the tensions and returning the tensions to Track I dialogue between leaders instead of electorates. The arrangement of a trade deal could give both sides the opportunity to claim a victory while allowing the structural sources of competition to be addressed outside of the public view. This could free enough diplomatic bandwidth to address issues of forced technology transfers, the proliferation of security-centered artificial intelligence, and violations of international waterways while reopening avenues for cooperation in areas like global health, arms control, and climate change. Unfortunately, the two countries seem to be heading in the opposite direction for now. Perhaps the end of the trade war, even if it takes place during a succeeding administration, will provide the relationship at least temporary respite from domestic politics.
Fortunately, this pessimistic forecast does come with an expiration date. The areas of cooperation—particularly climate change and global health—will become increasingly important to the U.S. electorate over the next century. And as the benefits of cooperation become as clear as the costs competition, U.S. public opinion will shift towards a more sensible approach to the relations, because, after all, states must be able to function if they are to compete.
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