October 14, 2021 | US-China Relations: Shifting Narratives and Domestic Constraints
Seemingly permanent sources of US-China tensions are more malleable than we think. Anything can change overnight.
Today’s notes are my subjective assessment of US-China relations and the broader perception of China in the US public imagination.
Within just a matter of weeks, the narrative around rising US-China tensions has shifted dramatically away from rapid deterioration towards budding optimism that some kind of stable equilibrium is possible under the Biden administration.
Among the general population, US perception of China is primarily narrative-driven, shaped by opinion news and agenda-driven punditry. The discourse coalesces around a set of core talking points intended to construct a distilled, monolithic caricature of China that pops up in the average person's mind.
For decades, the US elite consensus presented China as a rising, albeit relatively harmless emerging market held up as a testament to the virtues of globalization: a business opportunity to be captured. The Biden administration would gladly return to this consensus if it could.
However, the Trump administration reframed Xi Jinping’s China as the primary existential threat to American interests and values. The notion of “China” became the external bogeymen Trump leveraged to capture latent nationalist-populist sentiment among a rapidly shrinking middle class and an increasingly disenfranchised working-class.
Anti-China sentiment in the US deepened within the vortex of two interconnected secular trends:
China’s intensifying pivot toward nationalism and the Chinese Communist Party’s desire to legitimize China’s place as a leading global superpower on equal standing with the US
Growing domestic discontent within the United States rooted in rapidly rising income/wealth inequality, disillusionment with ineffective and ossified political institutions, and a growing sense that the United States is in terminal decline
The United States and China are constrained by many of the same domestic forces. For example, nationalism and certain forms of extreme ultra-nationalism exist in both systems.
In China, President Xi Jinping harnesses nationalism as a core component of his conception of China’s “national rejuvenation.” Nationalism will continue to grow more prominent as economic growth slows and authorities contend with uncovering ways of securing domestic legitimacy beyond rapid GDP growth.
In the United States, the Trump administration harnessed nationalism resembling 20th-century authoritarian leaders (including Xi Jinping and Mao Zedong, ironically enough).
Now the Biden administration is grappling with the remnants of Trump-fomented nationalism by holding back from rejecting certain populist elements outright. Biden’s China policy is essentially a continuation of the Trump era, despite evidence that such a continuation hurts Americans.
On the US-China front, Biden and Xi differ in their approach to nationalism. Biden is less skilled at leveraging nationalism to catalyze a sense of national rejuvenation. He holds up China as an external adversary, but it’s an intellectualized attempt at uniting the US polity.
For Biden, nationalism is more of a constraint than a catalyst. The administration would much rather see populist and anti-China sentiment fade over time. This would grant the administration far more flexibility in addressing a host of other issues (climate change, etc.) while placating major political donor constituencies (Wall Street, etc.).
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s approach to nationalism runs polar opposite to Biden’s. For Xi, nationalism is an indispensable tool for securing his legitimacy and the legitimacy of the Communist Party. Chinese leadership dials up nationalism to serve political means.
Xi channeled nationalism skilfully when faced with the Trump administration’s highly confrontational posture towards China. Rather than weakening Xi Jinping’s base, ramped up US anti-China rhetoric galvanized wide and diverse swathes of Mainland Chinese citizens around China’s authoritarian leadership. Including liberals and others who otherwise oppose many elements of Xi Jinping’s governance.
Nationalism is a critical component of China’s state-building effort. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama characterized such state-building efforts as consistent with eras of political development throughout world history:
“State-bulding has to rest on a foundation of nation-building, that is, the creation of common identities that serve as a locus of loyalty that trumps attachment to family, tribe, region, or ethnic group.”
In the context of domestic political constraints, returning to the narrative-driven nature of US-China relations, the United States has managed to single-handedly remove two core wedges that were legacy holdouts from the Trump administration:
On top of being human tragedies, these two geopolitical flashpoints were among the most prominent sources of US-China tensions, and for many months appeared they would remain so. Events turned quickly.
Chinese authorities released the Two Michaels after the US Justice Department dropped its extradition request for the Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou detained in Canada. In hindsight, this saga was a geopolitical hostage negotiation, and as soon as all parties involved were released this source of US-China tensions vanished overnight. It was a narrative-altering event.
The second major narrative-altering event arrived just weeks later when the Associated Press published a piece revealing easing repression against ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang Autonomous region. If the Biden administration believed it could extract geopolitical leverage from the systemic repression occurring in the Xinjiang autonomous region, this story would not have been published.
The Biden administration is often criticized for lacking a definitive China policy. However, what we’re seeing so far is an attempt to extricate the United States and China from the Trump-induced security spiral that dominated the geopolitical landscape from 2018-2021. As such, more evidence is emerging that the Biden admnistration’’s primary focus is eliminating or mitigating any source of tension that undermines the United States’ ability to home in a cooperative agenda with China.
Ultimately, the Biden administration wants is to restore as much of the pre-Trump engagement policy as possible — while also recognizing a political necessity to be ostensibly “tough on China” to appease the bi-party nationalist consensus towards China as an emerging threat.
Still, the main conclusion I’ve drawn from this recent period is how much agency the US President has to redefine how Americans view the world and their own country. Biden wants to reframe China away from being an existential threat towards a serious but more benign global competitor, and given enough time this is exactly what will happen.