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The US Consensus on China Is Just a Mirage

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The US Consensus on China Is Just a Mirage

Anyone hoping that U.S. China policy will avoid the pitfalls of growing political polarization is going to be disappointed.

The US Consensus on China Is Just a Mirage
Credit: Depositphotos

It’s been assumed that Washington, D.C. has finally reached a consensus on China and any suggestion that differences may persist is gently chided. U.S. relations with China are described as the “last bipartisan issue in Washington,” and there’s some evidence of that. Republican Senator John Barrasso said that China is an “enduring strategic threat to us” and emphasized that “[i]t’s important to speak with a unified voice.” Democratic Senator Tim Kaine said that “even if we had criticisms occasionally about Trump’s strategy on China, we didn’t criticize his motive. We thought, ‘He sees the challenge the right way.’” The U.S. public seems to be on board too, with the Pew Research Center reporting large bipartisan majorities of Americans in support of promoting human rights in China.

It’s not hard to see why either – China gives Americans the foreign adversary that they love to pit themselves against and provides a foolproof argument for stimulating domestic industry. China’s economic practices are problematic, its military posturing directly threatens U.S. allies, and reports of its human rights abuses are abhorrent. In other words, there’s something for everyone to dislike.

The problem is it won’t last. Nature abhors a vacuum; U.S. politics abhors consensus. As long as political incentives lead parties to differentiate themselves and exploit divisions to play to political bases, then any consensus will be superficial and fleeting. In fact, anyone hoping that exploiting a threat from China will bring Americans together is going to be disappointed – research has shown that external threats have almost no bearing on domestic polarization.

Just because there’s superficial consensus for now doesn’t mean the parties are identical, either. Meaningful differences exist between the parties – basically Republicans prefer military spending and Democrats prefer industrial policy, though that’s a crude oversimplification. But under conditions of polarization, what those differences are is less important than the fact that differences exist. In polarized politics, bipartisanship is a practical consideration rather than a value of its own. Once practical considerations change, the need for bipartisanship evaporates.

For one thing, political science research has shown that bipartisanship is an electoral strategy that works best when politicians want to secure the support of voters outside of their party, the proverbial swing voters – in other words, bipartisanship is not a natural condition but only possible when incentives permit it. During the Cold War, this helped enable the liberal internationalist coalitions that defined much of U.S. strategy toward the Soviet Union. But with the incentives for bipartisanship removed – and when incentives steer parties toward emphasizing differences – then it’s harder to see how a new “Cold War consensus” could emerge. As researchers Robert Shapiro and Yaeli Bloch-Elkon wrote in 2008, “differences between Democrats and Republicans, and liberals and conservatives, have been as high as 70 percentage points. By comparison, partisan differences did not reach more than 20 points during the Korean War.” In fact, foreign policy could even act as a wedge issue deliberately intended to divide voters by appealing to core constituencies and peeling away swing voters.

It’s not hard to see how this could apply to U.S. policy toward China (and already has). Indeed, the fissures are already there to be exploited. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has already warned Democrats against putting government programs under the umbrella of “China policy.” Lines of attack against Biden have been opened from the left, not only from overtly socialist outlets like Jacobin but also from more mainstream outlets like The Progressive and The Nation, as well as members of Congress. Differences can emerge among voters too – in the Pew Research poll mentioned above, Republicans support limiting China’s power and growth more than Democrats by an almost 2:1 margin. In fact, Republicans and Democrats are inversed in terms of whether they prefer the promotion of human rights or preventing China’s rise.

Obviously, it’s often healthy to avoid consensus. Rather than being an intrinsic good unto itself, the value of consensus is the political space it makes available for constructive decision making. One of the reasons the United States found itself engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq for so long was because critical perspectives were marginalized in deference to a consensus that was based on faulty grounds. Some of the pushback against deepening confrontation with China is well-intentioned and thoughtful, relating to concern over what it may mean for military spending relative to other priorities, concern that the threat is exaggerated, or that it may limit the possibilities for cooperation in areas of common concern such as climate change.

The first problem isn’t that there’s something wrong with new and different ideas, it’s the question of what happens when it’s time to arbitrate among those different perspectives in order to actually move policy. This is especially challenging in intraparty disputes when political allies want input over the policy process and effectively circumscribe the options available to Biden. For example, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (formerly just the TPP) is a massive agreement that meaningfully contributes to economic growth in the Asia-Pacific and sets a high standard for economic rules and norms, which will go a long way toward determining the geopolitical shape of the Asia-Pacific, but U.S. participation is a nonstarter given ratification is almost completely nonviable politically. If the United States maintains a light economic foothold in East Asia because executive orders and enforcement are the only practical steps the Biden administration can take, it ultimately won’t advance U.S. goals of setting rules and connecting markets.

Then there’s the other, bigger, and distinctly modern American problem of what to do when critics are opening lines of attack just for the sake of it and using distinction to create difference. It’s one thing to be an arbitrator in a marketplace of ideas, but a much different thing to do that when the critics aren’t arguing in good faith but still command serious influence in the policy process. This is why McConnell’s line about keeping initiatives to respond to China focused and limited can have the practical effect of putting a ceiling on the nature of Biden’s response and can lead to the possibility that initiatives take a least-common-denominator approach that garners the broadest support – very frequently, military spending, even if a more multifaceted response is in order. There’s also the ominous situation of hawks getting more hawkish simply to differentiate themselves from Biden, bringing with it the risk of such figures boxing themselves in on the options available to them and increasing the rhetoric that causes violence against Asian-Americans.

The most enduring consensus will be the mostly broad agreement on the nature of the challenge posed by Xi Jinping’s leadership, which itself is not a bad thing to come to an agreement on. Agreeing on how exactly to respond to that challenge will be much more difficult. If responding to China depends on bipartisan consensus, discerning which actors in Washington are operating in good faith and which are playing the role of an insincere spoiler will almost be as important as any strategy document.