Last year, there seemed to be a gap between the hawkish consensus on China inside the Beltway and how ordinary Americans felt about it; the polling suggested that ordinary Americans were less wary of the Middle Kingdom. The novel coronavirus, and its origins in Wuhan, have helped to erase that gap.
According to the latest Pew Research Center survey, “Roughly two-thirds now say they have an unfavorable view of China, the most negative rating for the country since the center began asking the question in 2005, and up nearly 20 percentage points since the start of the Trump administration. Positive views of China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, are also at historically low levels.”
This shift in public attitudes has hardened the approach of politicians as well. The Biden and Trump campaigns are outbidding each other to sound the most hawkish on China. Then, over the weekend, Sen. Tom Cotton, upped the ante saying on Fox News:
“If Chinese students want to come here and study Shakespeare and the Federalist Papers, that’s what they need to learn from America. They don’t need to learn quantum computing.”
It’s not just Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas. The wariness about China is decidedly bipartisan.
As it turns out, I wrote something for the May issue of Reason magazine about China titled “There is no China crisis.” The essay acknowledges that the old Washington consensus about China – trade and everything will work out just fine as China slowly liberalizes and embraces the liberal international order – was badly flawed. That said, the new consensus has its own problems:
“A proper U.S. strategy toward authoritarian capitalism in general and the Middle Kingdom in particular needs to appreciate the strengths and the weaknesses of the China model. Cold War hawks exaggerated Soviet capabilities, and today’s China hawks do the same with the regime in Beijing. Even if one accepts that China poses a significant threat to the American way of life, the optimal response is far removed from the actual response we are witnessing today. Indeed, it seems as though much of the policy response to China is predicated on a loss of self-confidence by the United States. Debates about China are stalking horses for debates about what is wrong with America….
“A little introspection and humility are good things for a policy making community. Unfortunately, the debate has lurched all the way into full-blown panic mode. The new Washington consensus is less about the souring of elite attitudes toward China and more about the souring of elite attitudes toward the United States. American intellectuals have gone from believing in the end of history to believing that history will bury us….
“The thought that dare not speak its name, the one underlying all of this anxiety, is that China’s model of political economy might be superior to America’s.”
The coronavirus has exacerbated this problem in all kinds of ways. The lackluster U.S. response has triggered a paroxysm of laments about America as a failed state. According to Politico’s Ben White, “so far, the federal response has been too small in scope and short on creative solutions to meet the greatest challenge since World War II.” George Packer opened his recent Atlantic essay with “when the virus came here, it found a country with serious underlying conditions, and it exploited them ruthlessly. Chronic ills – a corrupt political class, a sclerotic bureaucracy, a heartless economy, a divided and distracted public – had gone untreated for years.” In War on the Rocks, Frank Gavin concludes: “The pandemic afflicting the world has exposed many weaknesses and flaws. One of these is surely America’s ability to design, coordinate, and implement effective public policy in the face of a crisis.” My Washington Post colleague Ishaan Tharoor concludes, “few governments elsewhere are even looking to Washington for leadership.”
At the same time concerns are raised about China’s new tools of global influence and fears are expressed about China’s quest for global leadership. Some of these concerns are justified.
Still, the past week also highlights the fact that even if one believes that China’s moves must be countered, the way the United States has gone about it has been counterproductive at best and disastrous at worst. As numerous observers noted, Cotton’s approach to Chinese students would accomplish little beyond turbocharging China’s indigenous capabilities in quantum computing.
The New York Times’ Ben Smith noted last week that the State Department’s tit-for-tat with China over expelling press people has hurt the United States far more than it has hurt China. As Smith wrote, “The United States made its point – but paid a big price for it. China lost reporters for low-impact state media outlets, while American citizens and leaders lost access to rare up-close reporting in an increasingly closed state.” The damage has been so obvious that even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has acknowledged the screw-up, something he does not generally do even in private.
Then there is the administration’s plan to starve the World Health Organization of aid. My Washington Post colleagues John Hudson, Josh Dawsey and Souad Mekhennet wrote about what the administration is thinking on this question: “President Trump and his top aides are working behind the scenes to sideline the World Health Organization on several fronts as they seek to shift blame for the novel coronavirus pandemic to the world body, according to U.S. and foreign officials involved in the discussions.”
To be blunt, what they are thinking is nonsense. So far the only effect of the U.S. effort has been to stymie action at the U.N. Security Council and G-20. The fact that the United States cannot even get buy-in from its G-7 partners speaks to the absurdity of this idea. Traditionally, townsfolk do not look too kindly on the mayor who suggests disbanding the fire department in the middle of a raging fire.
As the foreign policy community thinks about what to do with China, it would be great if it recognized two important facts. The first is that it is likely overestimating China’s current power and prestige. Beijing has fared almost as badly as Washington in its response, and is lashing out as well. Even a modest return by the United States to its traditional leadership role would probably buy it goodwill from the rest of the world.
The second realization is that even if the United States has a lot of problems, so does China. Fixing America’s ills means acknowledging mistakes. It does not mean ramping up a new cold war with China or copying the Chinese Communist Party’s model for, well, anything.
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