The U.S.-China trade war that began last year continues to drag on as a long-term war of attrition. Negotiators ended their latest round of talks at the end of July with few results, and each side rang in August by announcing a new set of retaliatory measures.
Optimists hope to see the talks resume in September, and their spirits were buoyed by U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision on Tuesday to push some tariffs back from September 1 to December 15. Yet even if there are significant breakthroughs on the trade front — and that’s a very big “if” — it will do little to change the anti-China mood in Washington. Partisan rancor and the president’s Twitter musings may get the headlines, but there is broad agreement in the nation’s capital that the Sino-U.S. relationship has fundamentally changed. A critical mass of policymakers, national security hawks, China specialists, and even business liberals now rejects the long-standing conventional wisdom that engagement with China would engender that nation’s domestic liberalization and peaceful integration into the world order. Instead, China has gotten richer, more confident, and, at least to many observers, more authoritarian and more of a threat to U.S. interests. As of 2018-19, the new conventional wisdom is a damning, comprehensive critique of China’s trade policies, its assertive foreign policy, its pursuit of advanced technology, its demands on foreign companies, its narrowing of civil society space, its ideological battles with the West, and its environmental and labor standards. In the latest Washington parlance, China is a “whole-of-society” or “whole-of-nation” threat that necessitates a reciprocal response from Americans.
These sentiments are abundantly clear in executive statements on security and trade, in the language of new bills and laws, in legislative hearings, and in the many reports which Washington’s bureaucrats produce with regularity. Call it the triumph of the security perspective: The defense community has long pushed for a stronger hand against China, and since the end of 2017 U.S. defense and security reports have openly defended a more forceful line. The December 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) called China “a revisionist power” that “gathers and exploits data on an unrivaled scale and spreads features of its authoritarian system” in order to “shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests.” This was a far cry from the conciliatory 2015 NSS, which not only noted that the U.S. “welcomes the rise of a stable, peaceful, and prosperous China,” but also highlighted multiple examples of Sino-American cooperation.
The 2018 National Defense Strategy called for a new focus on “great power competition” with China (and, to a lesser degree, Russia), and minced no words in dubbing China “a strategic competitor using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbors while militarizing features in the South China Sea.” China, the report charged, seeks “regional hegemony in the near-term and [future] displacement of the United States” in its program to “shape a world consistent with [its] authoritarian model.” These claims stood in stark contrast to the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, which did not describe China as a threat and only briefly noted its military modernization.
The Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) 2018 and 2019 annual reports on China-related military and security developments followed much the same line in detailing Beijing’s strategy, force modernization, capabilities, and resources. A December 2018 DoD report similarly assessed the security implications of China’s global expansion via the Belt and Road Initiative, foreign direct investment, and the acquisition of overseas ports and military bases. While admitting that this expansion is not exclusively a military issue, it called for a “whole-of-government” response to China’s international activities.
In this June’s first-ever Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, the Pentagon called the region its “priority theater” and repeated the now-familiar litany of charges — that China is militarizing the South China Sea; is “engaged in a campaign of low-level coercion” to assert control in its region; and is using economic means to undermine smaller nations’ sovereignty. Even Defense Secretary James Mattis’s December 2018 resignation letter reiterated the charge that “China and Russia . . . want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model.” His immediate replacement, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, told the heads of the military services on his first day on the job to “remember China, China, China” while carrying out their duties.
On the commercial front, federal agencies have justified the trade war by laying out a detailed case against China in about a dozen public reports. The title of a June 2018 study from the Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy (OTMP) could not have been clearer: “How China’s Economic Aggression Threatens the Technologies and Intellectual Property of the United States and the World.” Its authors argued that China’s growth was achieved in significant part through “aggressive acts, policies, and practices that fall outside of global norms and rules,” and they listed a dizzying array of “vectors of China’s economic aggression” in tech and IP, from cyber espionage and piracy to economic coercion, discriminatory regulations, and state-sponsored evasion of U.S. export control laws.
The March 2019 U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Trade Policy Agenda and Annual Report mentioned China over 600 times under headings on non-market policies, illegal trade practices, excessive trade barriers, and “China’s Attacks on U.S. Innovation.” This contrasts sharply with the 2016 policy agenda, which mentioned China only 70 times while more optimistically stressing “dialogue, negotiation, and enforcement.”
The two most recent USTR reports on China’s WTO compliance each provide more than 150 pages of grievances from across market sectors. The January 2018 version detailed the “market-distorting” policies that were limiting access for foreign companies in China, and even argued that the United States erred in supporting China’s WTO entry on insufficient terms. The February 2019 version repeated the charge of China’s “poor” record of WTO compliance, and assailed its “continued embrace of a state-led, mercantilist approach to the economy and trade.” In 2018, the USTR released nearly 200 pages of findings and a 50-page follow-up on IP, tech, and innovation practices, this time with details on China’s technology transfer rules for foreign companies, foreign ownership restrictions, and discriminatory licensing restrictions. The April 2019 USTR special report on Section 301 of the Trade Act put China on its Priority Watch List for the 15th straight year.
In Congress, too, it is now customary to advocate confronting China on trade, security, and other issues, as evidenced by the provocative titles of some recent committee hearings: A New Approach for an Era of U.S.-China Competition; The China Challenge: Economic Coercion as Statecraft; Strategic Competition with China; Countering China: Ensuring America Remains the World Leader in Advanced Technologies and Innovation; China’s Predatory Trade and Investment Strategy; U.S. Responses to China’s Foreign Influence Operations; Tackling Fentanyl: The China Connection; China’s War on Christianity and Other Religious Faiths; and many more.
These hearings are awash in adversarial rhetoric and assertions that the United States has been asleep at the wheel for far too long. “For more than 40 years,” argued Representative Will Hurd (R-Texas) last September, “the U.S. has encouraged China to develop its own economy and take its place alongside the U.S. as a central and responsible player on the world stage, but China does not want to join us. They want to replace us… They are stealing our technology. They are forcing intellectual transfer.” As Senator Jim Talent (R-Missouri) of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (ESRC) stated this March, “The dominant view … was that participating fully in the world trading system would change China. But it’s fair to say that the opposite happened — that China has succeeded in changing the world trading system.”
Congress has also begun to act. Following the modest defense budget reductions of former President Barack Obama’s second term, last year’s FY 2019 budget raised defense spending to $716 billion and included a variety of China-related amendments, such as banning that nation from participating in the RIMPAC naval exercise. This year, Congress boosted the defense budget to $738 billion. Congress has also worked to strengthen Indo-Pacific defense, reinforce alliances, and stand up for Taiwan. It passed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) at the end of 2018 to reassure regional partners and counter China’s strategic influence based on the premise that China’s “coercive economic practices” and “illegal construction and militarization” of South China Sea islands are undermining the “core tenets” of the liberal world order. Regarding Taiwan, both houses unanimously passed the Taiwan Travel Act to encourage high-level exchanges between Taipei and Washington. Congress has also pushed for Taiwan’s observer status in the World Health Organization, and some legislators have forcefully made clear that the U.S. “one China policy” is not equivalent to Beijing’s “one China principle.” At present, an array of China-related bills is awaiting action in congressional committees, including the South China Sea and East China Sea Sanctions Act, the China Technology Transfer Control Act, the Fair Trade with China Enforcement Act, and bills addressing foreign influence operations. Passage is not certain for any of them, but they exemplify the zeitgeist.
Despite the unmistakable trend toward confrontation, it is not altogether clear that Washington has the collective attention span for a long fight. The president and Congress are ostensibly working for the future benefit of American businesses, but many businesspeople, investors, and farmers would prefer not to wait. Legislators are always gearing up for the next election, and China hawks and their allies will have to compete for attention and resources just like everyone else. Moreover, although the days when American corporations lined up to lobby for China may be behind us, China still has its advocates inside the beltway.
But whatever happens on the policy front in the next few years, there can be little doubt that mainstream opinion has shifted, perhaps irrevocably, and we should not expect a return to the conciliatory approaches of years past. Counter-China sentiment in Washington now runs so deep and wide that, at least in the short term, no summit or trade breakthrough will change its course.
Dr. Joe Renouard teaches at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Nanjing, China. His most recent book is Human Rights in American Foreign Policy: From the 1960s to the Soviet Collapse (Penn Press, 2016). He has also contributed essays to The Los Angeles Times, The National Interest, American Diplomacy, The Diplomat, HNN, and several edited collections.