On July 21, the United States ordered the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas, citing the office’s role as a hub for espionage. That same day, firefighters responded to reports of a blaze in the building’s courtyard, where workers were reportedly burning documents in barrels. Commentators were quick to point out the metaphorical significance. Decades of US-China diplomatic achievements were going up in smoke.
That relations between the two powers have deteriorated during Donald Trump’s presidency is not surprising. Trump’s ‘America First’ foreign policy platform, on which he relied throughout his 2016 campaign, focused on China’s trade practices with the United States. He claimed that the Chinese government had long taken advantage of America’s political class, who welcomed China’s rise at the expense of American industry. At a May 2016 campaign stop in Ohio, Trump told his supporters, “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country.”
Few people could have imagined, however, that a global pandemic would send relations between the world’s two foremost powers into the spiral of blame, confrontation, and retaliation we are now witnessing. This year, the Chinese military has threatened American allies, the United States Secretary of State has publicly claimed that engagement with China has failed, and senior officials from both countries have accused their counterparts of intentionally spreading a lethal and highly infectious virus around the world.
2020 will be remembered as a watershed year in US-China relations. The escalating tensions between the two countries result from a dynamic of increased Chinese assertion on the global stage and American inability to maintain preeminence. Three crucial factors all but guarantee the acceleration of this trend: Xi Jinping’s internal control and geopolitical ambitions; economic changes that have fueled the rise of populism in the West; and the coronavirus pandemic. China’s growing assertiveness and the United States’ increasing isolationism will likely result in more persecution, oppression, and violence around the world in the coming years.
Xi Jinping became the paramount leader of China just a week after Barack Obama won his second term in 2012. Since then, Xi has consolidated control in China to a remarkable degree. In 2018, he abolished presidential term limits, allowing himself to rule indefinitely. He has vastly increased the Chinese government’s surveillance state, mounting CCTV cameras all over the country to monitor citizens, instituting social credit systems in certain regions, and brutally oppressing the Uighur minority in Xinjiang province. Xi’s crackdown on dissent will likely protect his vision for China from internal challenges for years to come.
With Xi at the helm, China will increase its geopolitical assertiveness. Xi has continually emphasized his desire for Chinese ‘national rejuvenation,’ a euphemism for his ambition to become a dominant player on the global stage. True to his word, Xi has expanded China’s hard and soft power around the world. He has upped the ante in several strategic hotspots, building artificial islands for naval bases in the South China Sea and conducting military exercises near Taiwan. He has also projected influence in the international community without the use of force, by pushing China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative and adding Chinese troops to UN peacekeeping missions. Journalist Nick Schifrin, who hosted PBS NewsHour’s 2019 documentary series China: Power and Prosperity, sums up Xi’s rule in the following way: “Not since Mao Zedong, communist China’s founding father, has a Chinese leader suggested so clearly the world could emulate China. Not since Mao has China had a leader as powerful as Xi Jinping.”
Ascendant populist movements in the West, rooted in long-term economic trends, will hinder the United States’ ability to counter Chinese ambition. Donald Trump’s election to the presidency and the Brexit vote in the UK were catastrophic blows to the Western liberal order, sowing doubt and discord within NATO and the EU. But these events are not the source of the problem–they are symptoms of a more serious illness ailing the West.
Long-term employment insecurity has contributed to public frustration across the United States and Europe. As jobs are increasingly lost to technology, downwardly mobile middle-class voters are forming an ever-larger portion of the electorate in many Western countries, and they are more easily mobilized by populist figures.
Without significant structural changes in Western economies, populist politics will continue to thrive in the West. Unfortunately, these structural changes are ever less likely to occur as populism grows. In general, populist politicians promise snake oil remedies rather than sustainable solutions, creating a dangerous feedback loop. Populists feed on anxiety and resentment to win votes, but then fail to deliver lasting improvements, creating more anxiety and resentment.
Several factors suggest that the rise of populism will accelerate both China’s economic success relative to the West and America’s geopolitical withdrawal. First, populist politicians tend to embrace economic protectionism. With more Western leaders eager to halt economic integration with China, some of the important trade ties which have kept the fortunes of China and the West connected will fray. Second, in a similar vein, many populist politicians in the US and Europe favor geopolitical isolationism. With Western leaders less likely to pursue prolonged foreign interventions, China can increase its military presence in strategic areas without a concerted Western effort in opposition. Third, populism divides Western countries and inflames cultural battles, reinforcing polarization. Bitter partisanship will, in turn, create more political dysfunction and hinder Western countries from planning well-reasoned, consistent strategies to manage China’s rise. Lastly, political disorder in the West will probably push many developing countries into China’s sphere of influence. Once a reliable source of capital and political support for nations around the world, the United States is now seen as an unpredictable investor and erratic ally. China’s relative consistency may convince developing countries to rely on its support rather than the United States’ on issues such as trade and military defense.
The coronavirus crisis has set nearly every negative trend in the US-China relationship into overdrive. The perception of China in the West has cratered, indicating that anti-China policies in the US will become politically expedient. The United States’ inability to effectively curb the virus has created more political and cultural confusion, contributing to destabilizing polarization. Meanwhile, China’s success (after its initial failings) in controlling the virus has made it a more appealing ally to other countries on certain fronts. And the virus has distracted the international community from addressing China’s moves in Hong Kong, the South China Sea, and disputed border areas with India.
Most important are the economic effects of the coronavirus. In a recent Financial Times article, Jim McCormick highlights how China’s more efficient pandemic management, its earlier GDP rebound, and its export of protective equipment around the world have increased China’s economic power relative to other countries around the globe. Additionally, the recession has aggravated the economic sources of populism in the West. The ‘K-shaped’ recovery, in which the top quintile has recovered far more quickly than the bottom half, will likely create more animosity toward elites from financially vulnerable middle-class voters.
Given Americans’ increasing tendency to embrace geopolitical isolationism, why should we worry about China’s rise? If many Americans see global economic integration and foreign wars as unnecessary and misguided anyways, why should we care about a more detached America and a more assertive China? The history of US foreign policy suggests that despite Americans’ growing skepticism of their country’s global influence, the withdrawal of the United States could create serious problems.
Though the United States certainly holds a mixed track record as the world’s leading superpower, we should consider the alternatives—both present and historical—to US hegemony before condemning American foreign policy over the last 80 years. American leaders have clearly made dubious decisions since the end of the Second World War, which should be carefully examined and criticized. The Vietnam War, the invasion of Grenada, CIA interventions in Latin America, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and support of Saudi drone strikes in Yemen are all examples of aggressive US foreign policy deserving of criticism from moral, legal, and practical perspectives. But simply pointing to flaws in US foreign policy to argue for an increasingly isolated America ignores the inherent messiness of international relations and the geopolitical repercussions of allowing other actors to step into the vacuum created by America’s absence.
Well-conducted foreign policy requires comprehensive analyses of history, cultural dynamics, and international politics. It must be rooted in detailed study of the world’s balance of power and make well-grounded assumptions about the actions of dangerous, deceitful, and erratic adversaries. With these challenges in mind, the belief that American leaders should never take risks that could have negative consequences for ourselves or for foreign countries is misconceived. For the most powerful and influential country in the world, foreign policy risks, and therefore mistakes, are inevitable.
Yet, the continued refrains in our political discourse of “American imperialism,” “endless wars,” and “America First” suggest that the American people largely misunderstand this crucial fact. Both progressives and conservatives continually demonstrate their narrow interpretations of world history. For many on the American left, the United States represents nothing more than a neoliberal imperialist force intent on economically colonizing developing countries for the sake of multinational corporations. They see American actions abroad as largely indifferent to human rights or regional peace if such factors may interfere with the pursuit of capitalist interests. For many on the American right, the United States is strongest and most prosperous when it withdraws from the outside world. They view immigration, economic integration, and alliances as examples of American weakness and stupidity. Both worldviews are untethered from reality.
The decades since 1945 have been among the most peaceful in recorded history. Yes, there have been bloody wars, mass killings, and failed states. But the fact that the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Rwandan Genocide, 9/11 and the wars in the Middle East stand out as the period’s most significant violent conflicts demonstrates how relatively stable the post-war era has been. The ruin brought by these events pales in comparison to the destruction wrought by conflicts in the past. In the four decades prior to the Korean War, two world wars inflicted human costs at levels almost unimaginable to Americans today.
The United States’ unmatched economic, political, and military power helped establish unprecedented worldwide stability post-1945 in three crucial ways. First, American leaders’ active efforts to establish free trade agreements and global capital markets strengthened economic ties between previously adversarial nations. Economic integration discourages violence between states as waging war against a close trading partner will greatly damage one’s own economy. Second, the United States’ soft power, rooted in its economic and cultural success relative to the rest of the world, encouraged foreign countries to emulate its political and economic structures. Third, America’s system of military alliances, coupled with its willingness to employ military force to achieve its objectives, encouraged many previously aggressive countries to avoid remilitarizing after the Second World War.
That is not to say that American foreign policy has come without negative consequences. Global capital markets have accelerated economic development, vastly increasing worldwide carbon emissions. The environmental consequences are severe and must be addressed. Americans’ support of dictatorships abroad has contributed to human rights abuses and state-sponsored violence. And perhaps most importantly, global trade has fostered economic insecurity among middle-class workers throughout the West, which has fueled the rise of populism.
Ignoring the deleterious effects of American foreign policy is just as dangerous as focusing solely on America’s mistakes rather than its successes. The United States has undoubtedly committed serious errors that should make us reconsider the goals and methods of our foreign policy. We should acknowledge that, under certain conditions, American withdrawal from global affairs could produce beneficial results for the United States and the world. If actors better positioned to secure world peace and prosperity were ready to take the reins from the United States, then a decline in American presence would be welcome.
But these conditions simply do not apply to today’s world. Who will step into the vacuum of power left by the United States? A variety of state and non-state actors will increase their influence, chief among them being China.
China is far from a benevolent, peaceful power and its rise should worry not only Americans, but people around the world. Xi Jinping is an authoritarian tyrant who has committed grievous human rights violations, subjected his people to an Orwellian surveillance state, and suppressed democratic reforms. It is increasingly likely that China will expand its sphere of influence around the world and that these flagrantly illiberal practices will become more and more widespread. Facing a withdrawn and distracted United States, China may feel emboldened to use its own military or support proxy forces in foreign countries if it sees geopolitical opportunities. For those who value cultural diversity, intellectual freedom, and global peace, China’s rise and the re-emergence of populism in the West are immensely threatening.