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Commentary: Divided Americans can agree on one thing – antagonising China

The view of China as a strategic rival has taken over the American political mainstream, says Zhang Jun.

SHANGHAI: Last month, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee officially backed the Strategic Competition Act of 2021, which labels China a strategic competitor in a number of areas, including trade, technology and security.

Given bipartisan support – exceedingly rare in the United States nowadays – Congress will most likely pass the bill, and President Joe Biden will sign it. With that, America’s antagonism toward China would effectively become enshrined in US law.

The Strategic Competition Act purports to highlight supposed “malign behaviours” in which China engages to attain an “unfair economic advantage” and the “deference” of other countries to “its political and strategic objectives”.

In truth, the bill says a lot more about the US itself – little of it flattering – than it does about China.

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The US used to take a sanguine view of China’s economic development, recognising the lucrative opportunities that it represented. Even after China’s emergence as a political and economic powerhouse, successive US administrations generally regarded China as a strategic partner, rather than a competitor.

But, in the last few years, the view of China as a strategic rival has taken over the American political mainstream, with leaders largely choosing confrontation over cooperation.

Two features of this shift stand out: How quickly it occurred, and the extent to which Americans – and their leaders – have united behind it.

EXTREME POLARISATION IN THE US

Ironically, the problem is partly rooted in extreme ideological polarisation, which has impeded US political leaders’ ability to govern effectively and minimise the social costs of structural transformation in the age of globalisation and digitalisation.

These failures fuelled popular frustration and social tensions, creating fertile ground for former President Donald Trump’s populist America First campaign.

File photo of US President Donald Trump. (Photo: AFP/Nicholas Kamm) US President Donald Trump's "America first" policies are testing the usually collegial G7 club AFP/Nicholas Kamm READ: Commentary: If Trump wins again, the true values of the Republican Party will be abandoned The risk of increased conflict and disruption – such as what we are currently witnessing in Nagorno-Karabakh in Central Asia - will only intensify amid foreign policy crises that emerge across regions in which the US no longer has significant interest.

Vilification of China – which, unlike the US, prudently managed the risks of economic globalisation to minimise the costs of structural change – was central to Trump’s electoral appeal. It is also perhaps the most notable feature of the Trump doctrine to have survived the transition to Joe Biden’s administration.

The anti-China narrative has thus restored some common ground to American politics. Unfortunately, Americans are agreeing on an idea that will do them far more harm than good.

What the US should be focusing on is how to benefit from globalisation and technological progress and manage the risks arising from the associated structural disruptions.

To that end, effective cooperation with China – together with a broader embrace of free trade and economic openness – would be enormously helpful.

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In fact, according to former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who spoke at a special session of the China Development Forum in Beijing in March, a positive, cooperative bilateral relationship is essential to global peace and prosperity.

And no American alive today is better qualified to assess Sino-American relations than Kissinger, whose secret mission to Beijing 50 years ago this year led to the restoration of diplomatic ties.

In his remarks, Kissinger acknowledged just how difficult it will be to build the Sino-American relationship the world needs, noting that the different cultures and histories of these two “great societies” naturally lead to differences of opinion.

Modern technology, global communications and economic globalisation further complicate the ability to reach consensus.

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FRAGMENTED MEDIA LANDSCAPE

Kissinger was right to highlight modern technology as a key challenge. In the past, when dominant media organisations largely shaped the popular narrative, remaining relatively neutral was the most effective way to compete.

With voters all sharing roughly the same facts, politicians’ best bet was to appeal to the “median voter”, rather than those on the extremes. As Anthony Downs explained with his “median voter theorem” – inspired by the Hotelling model in economics – the outcome of majority voting is the median voter’s preferred option.

A voter deposits her ballot in a drop box outside the Osceola County Supervisor of Elections office Monday, Nov. 2, 2020, in Kissimmee, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

But modern technology has fragmented the media landscape and eroded traditional news organisations’ “gatekeeper” role. Inaccurate, misleading or otherwise unreliable information can be disseminated to a huge audience instantly.

Moreover, it can be targeted at those who are most likely to agree with it, and kept away from those who would disagree.

This has fuelled a growing preference for “personalised” information – and transformed media’s competitive strategies. In this environment, neutral reporting doesn’t attract as much attention as inflammatory or ideologically driven reporting, especially if the latter is algorithmically targeted at those who are primed to embrace it.

The media’s role in establishing a common factual basis has thus increasingly gone by the wayside – and, with it, the strategy of appealing to the median voter.

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As US media embraced increasingly biased, targeted strategies, deep polarisation became all but inevitable.

This, together with US politicians’ new incentives to appeal to the ideological extremes, has torn at the fabric of American society, fuelling instability and conflict, hampering leaders’ ability to address urgent challenges, and undermining America’s position of global leadership.

China has largely avoided this pitfall of modern technology, though not without cost and criticism, by controlling extreme online speech and limiting populist attacks on mainstream values.

But it has not avoided America’s media-fuelled ire. In a matter of just a few years, the US-China relationship has regressed significantly, and the global free trade system has been pushed to the brink of collapse.

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As Kissinger made clear, the difficulty of restoring Sino-American relations should not deter leaders from trying.

On the contrary, it demands that both sides make “ever more intensive efforts” to work together. For the US, however, that work must begin at home. The real threat to the US is not from rising China, but from its inability to meet the challenges of modern technology.

Zhang Jun is Dean of the School of Economics at Fudan University and Director of the China Center for Economic Studies, a Shanghai-based think tank.

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