Wed, Sep 12, 2018 - Page 9 News List

How China went from a business opportunity to US enemy No. 1

Public opinion polls show that the number of Americans who see Beijing’s economic practices as a serious threat has risen, but the US business community is split on the matter of whether to stand up or cozy up to China

By Hal Brands  /  Bloomberg Opinion

Illustration: Mountain People

One of the remarkable things about the era of US President Donald Trump is how significantly the US conversation about China has changed.

As recently as 2016, former US president 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.

Trump himself has labeled Beijing an implacable economic competitor even as he has occasionally tried to buddy up to Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平).

In sum, only a few years ago, China was seen primarily as a difficult, but essential partner, one that might yet be co-opted into supporting the US-led international system.

Today, it is more often described primarily as a destabilizing revisionist power.

Amid the chaos of the Trump presidency, it can be hard to tell what has changed permanently and what has shifted only temporarily.

Yet the transformation in US views of China seems likely to outlast Trump’s tenure.

Polls show that the US public has grown more skeptical of Beijing’s intentions.

In 2016, 82 percent 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 last year to this year.

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 US foreign policy establishment often finds itself at odds with Trump and his “America first” agenda, when it comes to China, most members of the 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 behavior 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 US 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 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.

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