One of the remarkable things about the Donald Trump era is how significantly the American conversation about China has changed.
As recently as 2016, Barack Obama argued that a weak China that could not contribute to solving global problems was more dangerous than a strong and potentially aggressive China. The Trump administration, by contrast, has identified China as the biggest long-term threat to US geopolitical and geo-economic interests. Amid the chaos of the Trump presidency, it can be hard to tell what has changed permanently and what has shifted only temporarily. Yet this transformation in US views of China seems likely to outlast Trump’s tenure. Polls show that the American public has grown more skeptical of Beijing’s intentions. In 2016, 82% of Americans saw China’s ongoing military buildup as a somewhat serious or very serious concern. More recently, the number of Americans considering China the greatest immediate threat tripled from 2017 to 2018.
For nearly 25 years, there was a bipartisan consensus on the need for intensive engagement with Beijing. Now, one can see the outlines of a nascent—if still incomplete—consensus stressing the need for stiffer competition.
That consensus begins with intensifying concern about the national security risks a rising China poses. Although the foreign policy establishment often finds itself at odds with Trump and his America First agenda, when it comes to China most members of that establishment broadly agree with the way the Trump administration defines the China threat.
As Xi has reached for power and influence on the global stage, the perception that China is determined to unseat the US as the dominant actor in the Asia-Pacific—and perhaps globally—has become more widespread among informed observers of US policy. So has the belief that efforts to change Beijing’s behaviour and limit its ambitions through persistent economic and diplomatic engagement have failed to produce the desired results.
Earlier this year, two former high-ranking Democratic foreign-policy officials — Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner — wrote an article describing the China challenge in roughly the same terms as Trump’s National Security Strategy. It is hard to imagine the next administration’s strategy identifying China as anything other than the most formidable great-power challenger the US has faced in decades.
The nascent consensus on China also reflects that fact that Beijing has come to represent a major ideological threat. In the 1990s and early 2000s, it was widely assumed that ideological conflict was a thing of the past, because Beijing would eventually liberalize both economically and politically. Now, that rosy scenario has largely been abandoned.
China is becoming steadily more autocratic under Xi; it is also seeking to expand its influence and ensure its security by promoting authoritarianism abroad. As the Chinese regime undermines democratic rule in Hong Kong and Taiwan, undertakes horrific repression against Muslims in Xinjiang, supports autocrats in countries from Cambodia to Venezuela, and seeks to stifle free speech even in Europe and the US, it is earning itself a reputation as the leader of an authoritarian resurgence that is promoting repression and undermining democratic values around the world.
Then there is the third driver of rising American hostility to China: the threat to US economic competitiveness. To be clear, organized labour was always skeptical of engagement with China, out of fears—justified, as it turned out—that increased trade with Beijing would accelerate the hollowing out of American manufacturing. Yet that concern has become more politically salient, as Trump harnessed frustration with the dislocations of globalization in his 2016 campaign—with China as the poster child for all that had gone wrong. As Trump showed, there are votes in China-bashing.
More broadly, the past few years have produced growing evidence that China is not simply labour’s problem. It now represents a larger economic threat, through practices such as forced technology transfer, deliberate efforts to weaken the US industrial and technological base, and its Made in China 2025 project that aims to make Beijing dominant in numerous critical sectors. Americans are becoming less likely to see China as a massive market for US goods and debt, and more as a predatory competitor.
Yet the economic realm is where the emerging consensus on China remains most tenuous, because the US business community is still of two minds on the matter. On the one hand, there are plenty of American firms that have experienced rampant intellectual property theft, bullying and censorship, and other abusive Chinese practices. On the other hand, there are still gobs of money to be made in China, and the Chinese are experts at employing the divide-and-conquer tactics that prevent US firms from more effectively asserting their interests.
These factors are sometimes exacerbated by the mix of techno-utopianism and post-nationalism that prevails in key parts of the business community, namely Silicon Valley. There remain companies like Google, which refuses to continue cooperating with Uncle Sam to use AI to enhance the performance of American drones, but is willing to secretly work with the Chinese government to build a search engine more conducive to censorship.
There is a stronger consensus today on the need to get tough with China than there has been in decades. But that consensus is still not broad or strong enough as it must be to meet the China challenge.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Views columnist.