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What Consensus? A European perspective on the US-China debate

What Consensus? A European perspective on the US-China debate
 Maya Kandel
Historian, Associate Researcher at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3 (CREW)

China is front and center in the American presidential campaign. But while there are areas of convergence and even consensus on specific aspects of the coming competition, there is no overall bipartisan consensus over what a global China strategy should be, beyond the necessary reappraisal of the bilateral relationship. The electoral context and the hyper-polarization of American politics make it particularly difficult for outside observers to understand the nuances of the American debate on China, let alone the overall objective of American policy regarding China. This article aims to clarify this debate by proposing a typology using the dominant focus (economic, military, or ideological), and distinguishing four positions in the political spectrum on China in the U.S. 

There are three dominant lenses through which the bilateral relationship with China is considered from Washington:

  • Economic: the economic focus is actually threefold, depending on political priorities. The first aims to defend American jobs through industrial policy; the second approach puts primacy on technological competition; the third approach insists on the need for labor, environmental, and human rights standards. While there seems to be a general agreement for a greater role of the Federal government, the specificities and priorities of a national industrial policy vary, as well as the degree of input from the private sector. 
  • Strategic: this perspective focuses on military competition, usually with a strong technological emphasis. Technological supremacy remains an essential feature of American global leadership and supremacy (remember Obama’s Third offset strategy).
  • Ideological (or "civilizational" for national-conservative types with their emphasis on religion): this perspective insists on the defense of the American model and way of life, including worldwide. Religious freedom is a major point of contention for Trumpists, while Democrats will insist on human rights and democracy. Trump’s evangelical base has rallied fervently behind those arguing for punishing China, for Covid-19 as well as for the persecution of Christians and Uighurs. Sen. Josh Hawley, one of Trump’s most ardent supporters in the Senate, has self-identified as the spokesperson of this new crusade. 

There are three dominant lenses through which the bilateral relationship with China is considered from Washington: economic, strategic and ideological.

This thematic trilogy, paired with a partisan framework, produces a typology of four "families," at the intersection of politics, policy, and strategic thinking (with affiliated think tankers). All groups invoke the defense of principles (values and human rights); none consider a total decoupling. The major differences between the four groups are: the favored framework (bilateral or multilateral), the dominant focus (military or economic), and the degree of international activism (interventionism or disengagement).

1/ Trumpists:

The current administration's approach is described in a May 2020 strategic document on China, summarizing the national security and defense strategies (NSS 2017 and NDS 2018) and adding more recent steps. It seems to rely on five assumptions:

  • "Iranian approach": maximum pressure is needed to push the Chinese regime to fail and/or obey (a form of "economic regime change" strategy).
  • Unilateralism: the United States can take on China, allies and partners will fall in line and follow through.
  • The international system is part of the problem: China is instrumentalizing international organizations and uses them to increase its influence. The U.S. should exit as many of them as possible, ignore the ones that cannot be destroyed, and build alternative institutions against China in the necessary areas.
  • There is no possible common cause between Washington and Beijing and therefore no area of cooperation (Trump's loyalty to this assumption can vary).
  • The bilateral relationship with Taiwan is at the top of the White House's agenda in Asia, echoing congressional positions, but in opposition to earlier comments by President Trump. 

2/ Centrist Democrats (Biden):

Centrist Democrats, who would (seemingly?) set the tone in a Biden administration, start from five distinct ideas:

  • This competition will be won "at home": the priority must be the U.S. economy and improving the state of the country. Research and technology should be priorities.
  • The United States is stronger because and when it works with its partners and allies: the world is multipolar and there is no alternative to alliances, which will have to be rebuilt, consolidated, expanded, or reinvented.
  • Another priority is to reform existing international organizations from within: American disinvestment has allowed the increasing influence of China.
  • This is not a zero-sum game: there are areas of possible cooperation with China (climate), and some Chinese investments are beneficial to the global economy (e.g. in infrastructure in Africa).
  • Other countries do not want to have to choose between the United States and China: Washington should avoid imposing this binary choice upon its partners and allies.

Among the proponents of this position, some advocate a much firmer stance, based on the defense and promotion of democratic values (Taiwan, Hong Kong, Christians and Uighurs in China). This is reminiscent of both Elizabeth Warren’s and Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy focus against an "authoritarian axis" during their campaigns. However, this position is now rejected by a segment of the progressive wing (the purists of the fourth family described below)

3/ Traditional Republicans (including "Never Trump" neoconservatives and Republican think tankers who did not embrace Trumpism):

They have points in common both with centrist Democrats (emphasis on alliances), as well as with Trumpists (sacrosanct defense of Taiwan), but their primary focus is strategic, with a strong emphasis on the military and technological dimensions. The most important international arrangements are military alliances, even though other institutions can be helpful to build legitimacy. Europeans are necessary to help with the security of the Northern Atlantic (with American support), but Asian allies are indispensable with regard to China, Japan being the most important. The recent column by Elbridge Colby and Wess Mitchell in the Wall Street Journal nicely captures this approach.

They all share a military tropism, a consensus on the importance of winning the technological war, and an emphasis on defense innovation.

The differences between the Biden approach and this one reside mainly in the emphasis on economic reforms within the United States, a concession to domestic priorities. For the rest, these positions converge greatly, and could lay ground for a new bipartisan consensus. Analysts with a Democratic sensibility such as Julie Smith, Melanie Hart, Ely Ratner, who could certainly be part of a Biden administration, are very close to "traditional" Republican analysts like Aaron Friedberg or Evan Feigenbaum, who could have been part of a more traditional Republican administration. They all share a military tropism, a consensus on the importance of winning the technological war, and an emphasis on defense innovation.

4/ Quincy Mutineers (anti-militarists, "realists", and all "restrainers", including right-leaning libertarians)

They share some views with the first family and others with the second group:

  • A Trumpian disdain for allies, whether Asian or European, who must take (complete) responsibility for their own defense. This position can go so far as suggesting to accept that Taiwan is in China’s sphere of influence ("realpolitik").
  • The vision of a competition that is above all economic: domestic economic reconstruction is the priority (health, infrastructure, education).
  • An emphasis on areas of cooperationwith China, particularly climate change.

During the campaign, progressives led by Sanders and Warren emphasized the need to counter an "axis of authoritarianism and corruption" led by China (and Russia). This position is now being contested. The overriding concern in this group is that a bipolar confrontation between the U.S. and China will inflate the Pentagon’s budget yet again, and divert attention and resources from the necessary domestic priorities and reforms, while reviving the bipartisan interventionist consensus they reject. Peter Beinart and Stephen Wertheim both insist on rejecting the narrative of strategic competition and of a "new Cold War,"which would otherwise lead the United States into a new arms race, renewed proxy wars, all against a backdrop of anti-Asian racism at home.

A second Trump administration would benefit from the convergence of European and American views on China, which has been accelerated by the pandemic. However, Transatlantic cooperation on China would remain complicated. Trump’s transactional approach would be reaffirmed, and there is no reason to imagine that Europeans would cease to be considered as commercial adversaries, as well as less strategically useful allies than Asian partners. A renewed transactional approach would question the Transatlantic alliance and NATO, again. Above all, President Trump would resume being the disruptive factor of American policy on China(and of U.S. foreign policy in general), an aspect that will only become more pronounced if he is re-elected. The campaign will be behind him and the debate between the different agencies and personal influences will resume. This last point will complicate Europeans' position if the administration demands an undisputed alignment on sensitive and/or complex issues that will remain subject to impulsive changes of mind from the American president.

A Biden victory is expected to lead to a "transatlantic reset," but its nature, and the reinvention of a 21st century transatlantic contract, will require efforts on both sides. A Democratic administration would have primarily domestic priorities, an aspect only reinforced in the dual Covid-19 and post-George Floyd context. On the international scene, it would see the urgency of relaunching multilateral cooperation, especially on the pandemic and on economic recovery. A democratic administration could consider with more serenity the development of European strategic autonomy to take more responsibility in Europe’s neighborhood. But trade matters (tariffs, regulations, investment screening), and digital issues (Big Tech taxation, AI, regulation of platforms), will remain major irritants, and could take center stage. Climate is probably the area where a Biden administration will see Europeans as the most natural partners. However, the willingness to cooperate with China will have to take into account the reality of Chinese policies and actions in this area.

In conclusion, the return of the United States to a more cooperative approach to international relations will at least allow for a more rational transatlantic conversation on China. But the pandemic will also definitely confirm the Asian pivot of U.S. foreign policy. Europeans should be prepared, and will have to find their place – and, above all, define their own strategy.


Copyright : WANG ZHAO / AFP

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