It seems that more and more America speaks with one anti-China voice which becomes more threatening and belligerent by the day. In March, finally, there was a chink of light. A statement by the Editorial Board of the New York Times called for a strategy of engagement rather than confrontation with China, arguing that confrontation was in neither America’s interests nor China’s. Whether it will have much influence remains to be seen, but hopefully it will encourage other voices to speak out too.
There has been a dramatic transformation in America’s attitude toward China since Donald Trump became president in January 2017. Engagement has increasingly been replaced by containment and confrontation. There were hopes that the Biden administration would embrace a more cooperative approach. It was not to be. On the contrary, following the demonising and grandstanding of Trump, Biden has largely shunned engagement and sought to isolate China and undermine its economy. The atmosphere in America has increasingly come to resemble that of the cold war, not yet hysterical but increasingly toxic toward China.
America’s hostility toward China is a salutary reminder of two things. First, the US is unable to accept not being No 1 in the world. It regards this to be its God-given right. Any country that endangers this is seen as a threat and an enemy. This attitude deeply suffuses American society. That is why hostility toward China moved so rapidly from being the view of a small minority to becoming consensual. The attitude of the great majority of Americans toward China is now far more hostile than it was several years ago. Second, a powerful theme in America is intolerance: a Manichean stress on good and evil, a rejection of the other, as exemplified by the treatment of African Americans and native Americans, and the McCarthyite witchhunt against communists and others in the 1950s, which generated an atmosphere of near-hysteria (as brilliantly captured in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, one of the greatest plays ever written).
So where will it end? In the longer run, the anti-China movement in the US faces insurmountable problems. China cannot be excised in the manner of the cold war because China is already more important to the global economy than the United States. In other words, attempts to decouple from, and isolate, China has very severe limits. The US will be obliged to live with and interact with China come what may. Much as it would like to, moreover, it will be quite impossible for the US to undermine the present governing system in China or split the country, as it succeeded in doing to the USSR. That is for the birds. Sooner or later, these realities will assert themselves. Ever since 2017 I have been a pessimist about the timescale of any return to a more cooperative relationship between the US and China. I still am.
It would be wrong, however, to be fatalistic. Sooner or later, America will have to face up to realities and recognise that it must learn to share the world with China. With the Chinese economy already larger than America’s, it is obvious that America cannot cling on forever to the belief that it is, and must remain, No.1 in the world. That era is fast coming to an end. But it has been difficult to spot any chinks of light in the growing darkness engulfing America. Democrats, Republicans, the military and foreign policy establishments, and growing sections of business, are singing from the same anti-China hymn sheet. That is why a recent statement in the New York Times, America’s most influential newspaper, by its Editorial Board is to be welcomed.
It takes issue with the present anti-China consensus, arguing against confrontation and for engagement, and that “Americans’ interests are best served by emphasising competition with China, while minimising confrontation.” It believes that “Chinese actions and rhetoric also need to be kept in perspective. By the standards of superpowers, China remains a homebody.” And that “China continues to show strikingly little interest in persuading other nations to adopt its social and political values.” So much for China the aggressor. Furthermore, it believes that many of the challenges facing China are similar to America’s, such as income inequality, hence “common prosperity.” It regards “the Biden administration’s continuation of Trump-era restrictions on trade with China, and its imposition of a host of new restrictions,” as a “dubious strategy.”
The logic of the New York Times editorial would lead in a very different direction to that being pursued by the Biden administration. At its heart would be engagement and cooperation. There is a de facto recognition that China is here stay, that far from being a dangerous threat, the two countries have many interests in common and must find a way to cooperate. We should not exaggerate its significance. It is still a relatively isolated voice. But nor should we underplay it. The New York Times is a powerful and influential voice of liberal America, widely read by Democrats. More than any other US publication, its views are closely followed in Europe.
There has been a big shift in opinion in China about America. From respect and admiration, attitudes have become increasingly negative and dismissive. How could it be otherwise? America has turned on China and is seeking to contain and undermine it. America is no longer a friend. But we should never lose sight of the fact that ultimately China and the US must cooperate. In that light, any signs of a shift in American attitudes are to be welcomed and encouraged.