11 November 2020

The Chinese threat is the one thing Americans can agree on


The US presidential race is over, except a series of largely frivolous lawsuits by Donald Trump (the worst sport in American political history) means that it is not quite. The Senate race is over, except that two run-offs for seats in Georgia on January 5 means that overall control of the chamber is still (just about) up for grabs. If the Democrats can win both there’ll be a 50-50 split in the upper house, giving them (through Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris) the power to break ties in their favour.

Even in the more stable House of Representatives — where the Democrats lost seats but retain a slim majority —controversy has immediately erupted, with the moderate wing of the party bickering with progressives over who is responsible for the party’s surprisingly poor showing. Across the board, this has been the murkiest of election outcomes.

Yet as the brilliant songwriter Leonard Cohen put it, “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”. Amidst all these imperfections patterns are still discernible.

Despite Trump’s temper tantrum, Joe Biden will be sworn in as the nation’s 46th president on January 20. The Republicans are overwhelmingly likely to retain at least one of the Senate seats in Georgia, allowing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to parlay with the new Biden administration on relatively equal terms. Nancy Pelosi will continue her balancing act, just about keeping the fractious Democratic caucus together to govern in the lower house. In other words, there is more political light here than at first meets the eye.

This is also true of American public opinion, which I was keen to measure at this seminal moment in American history. To make sure my political risk firm is as educated as possible, John C. Hulsman Enterprises just commissioned a substantial poll of 2,004 respondents — conducted just ahead of last week’s election by Public First, the premier UK public policy research agency — on the American public’s opinions on foreign policy.

The results make for startling reading, not least because of what they reveal about attitudes to China. Overall, 44% of those polled named Beijing as one of America’s five top rivals, with fully 31% putting it first. But there is a difference in emphasis between Republicans and Democrats. Russia just edges China out as to which rival the next President should be tougher on, but beneath that close outcome lurks a partisan divide: 44% of Trump voters strongly agree that the next President should be tougher on China, but that halves to 22% when you ask Biden voters. Conversely 38% of Biden voters want tougher action on Russia compared to 27% of Trump supporters.

The Covid-19 pandemic, and who is primarily responsible for it, lies behind the general increasing American suspicion of China, particularly among Republicans. A direct question in our poll asked who is primarily to blame for the pandemic. It resulted in a dead heat between the Chinese government (37%) and Donald Trump (36%). There is a huge partisan chasm here, with 62% of Trump voters blaming the Chinese and a near identical proportion of Biden voters (65%) primarily blaming Trump. Of course, those findings also reflect the core messages of the two campaigns: Trump’s repeated insistence on calling Covid the ‘China virus’ and Biden’s that the big story is Trump’s incompetence in handling the outbreak.

Following logically on from this, less than a third of Biden’s voters are willing to take diplomatic action against Beijing as a result of the pandemic, while two thirds of Trump voters endorse this action. For Republicans, Covid-19 is the straw that broke the camel’s back, transforming the strategic competition between the two superpowers into an outright cold war.

The Democrats’ approach is altogether less certain: the party seems to want a dual-track strategy, working with Beijing where possible (as over pandemic coordination, macroeconomics and global warming) while strategically constructing an alliance in Asia to stand up to them.

In one sense both candidates followed their respective bases on Sino-American relations. Biden, reversing course after years of following the Washington foreign policy establishment’s dovish approach, now calls Xi a ‘thug’ due to his human rights abuses in Tibet and Xinjiang province, and pledges to get tough on Beijing. At the same time, his foreign policy team are pushing China hard strategically and on trade, even while seeking to work together on transnational issues.

All this explains the Biden camp’s hesitancy both to punish China for its role in propagating Covid or to label it as America’s primary rival. At the same time, President Trump is in tune with his base’s very different take on China as the villain of the Covid story – an unreliable superpower whose rise must be strategically contested.

For those of us on the right who believe (as I do) in Chinese culpability for allowing the virus to spread, we find ourselves in a seminal cold war situation, based on differing first principles of existence. Biden, as well as his supporters, are not yet prepared to go this far, naively hoping a dual track strategy with Beijing is possible.

Our fascinating poll (please do check out all the many other beguiling stories that can be found in the results) makes this division in American public opinion clear, as well as the reasons for it. Yet beneath this division, as Cohen eloquently put it, there is a ray of light. For now, both parties, and US public opinion as a whole, sees China as America’s great rival. A new cold war has already begun.

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Dr. John C. Hulsman is Chairman of the global political risk consultancy John C. Hulsman Enterprises, and author of 'To Dare More Boldly; The Audacious Story of Political Risk'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.