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Beware ‘Just Say China’ Politics

Republicans screamed for more spending to counter China. Democrats are claiming their infrastructure bill does just that. It’s a dangerous game.

The president’s $2 trillion infrastructure bill before Congress proposes a huge expansion of government and government spending, and a tax increase on corporations. Both aspects are broadly popular with the public — and are also a Republican’s nightmare. So how is the White House selling it to lawmakers? By just saying ‘China.’ 

The White House is banking on getting Republicans on board — or setting them up to be shamed — by calling its bill a must-have if the United States wants to compete with China. That seems smart, if cheeky, at first. After all, Republicans want to compete with China. Hoo boy, do they ever. For the past two to three years, China has become the I’m-tougher-than-you foreign policy issue in American politics, and the right has come hard at Biden early in his presidency. On the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, GOP members have pounded the dais calling for more spending, missiles, ships, fighter planes, Space Guardians, Olympic boycotts, more, more, more.

But will those same lawmakers go along with the Democrats who claim that building American bridges, railways, airports, seaport, and digital infrastructure is as important as starting a hypersonic missile race, going to war to protect Taiwan, or fielding an expanded arsenal of US Army long guns? The White House thinks so.

“I promise you, you’re all going to be reporting over the next six to eight months how China and the rest of the world is racing ahead of us in the investments they have in the future, attempting to own the future,” President Joe Biden said on Wednesday. “The technology, quantum computing, investing significant amounts of money and dealing with cancer and Alzheimer's — that’s the infrastructure of a nation.”

Leaving aside copious past reporting on China and its military-related technology, if not Beijing's medical advances, how seriously Americans take the China question depends enormously on how Democrat and Republican leaders talk about it. Americans are learning quickly about competition with China and jumping on board with the urgency, but not necessarily the alarm bells, nor what to do about it. The Chicago Council poll released Feb. 1 is among the latest to find huge disparities on China between Republicans and Democrats. Everyone is more concerned, that’s clear. But Republican leaders and voters believe far more than Democrats — by 20 to 30 percent — that China is an urgent threat that requires a hawkish response, like defending Taiwan. 

A Pew survey released last month found the same common concerns rising, but additional divisions among partisans. “Roughly nine-in-ten U.S. adults (89%) consider China a competitor or enemy, rather than a partner,” Pew researchers reported finding. That reflects both news of Xi Jinping’s increasingly-alarming dictatorial reign and Western leaders’ increasingly-hawkish responses. But how seriously Americans take the threat again splits along party lines. Republicans and Democrats alike feel increasingly “cold” about China. Yet, sixty-three percent of Republicans — more than double the percent of Democrats — said “limiting China’s power and influence should be a top foreign policy priority.” That’s a stunning increase from 2018, when just 39 percent of Republicans (and 29 percent of Democrats) felt that way. In other words, most Democrats aren’t feeling the hawks’ drumbeats. Only 20 percent of them think China as “an enemy.” Among those identifying as just “liberal” who see China as an enemy, the rate drops to just 16 percent. For those calling themselves Republicans, it’s 53 percent. For all conservatives, it’s 64 percent. 

It’s hard to see immediately how the left and right camps will merge on China and the infrastructure bill, but a separation of the partisans from the pragmatists already is underway. Former president Donald Trump this weekend ripped Biden’s proposal as a “giveaway for China.” But the Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib, who noted that Biden said China six times in his infrastructure speech, put it this way: even though Republicans blasted the bill as “a progressive wish list hiding behind the disguise of infrastructure and financed by a job-killing corporate tax increase,” the package includes spending on things like $50 billion for semiconductors that would be attractive to conservative advocates for domestic manufacturing, like Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.

We are just two months into Biden’s presidency and the China fear-mongering rhetoric that the Trump administration hath bequeathed has manifested from Congressional committees to street violence targeting Asian-Americans. Pleas to treat China seriously have been ignored in the rush to score partisan points and pump out with-us-or-against-us memes. 

The Biden White House’s serious, diplomatic, government-wide effort to forge a new U.S.-China policy for the future is welcome. But barking “China!” in a bid to squeeze through trillion-dollar domestic spending bills is worrying. It has the same potential to dumb down the most serious and complex national security issue that is challenging the future of the United States’ and other Western democracies’ influence in the world. 

Everything is politics, and the China issue is no exception. Some spending proposals in that bill could directly counter Beijing's influence. But if Biden is serious about a different kind of foreign policy, and judging by American opinions, his administration would be better served spending more time speaking to Americans in depth and at length about the U.S.-China relationship and policies he wants, and less time using China as a political football.