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Opinion | America, Don’t Try to Out-China China

Republicans and Democrats disagree about many foreign policy issues, but not about the perception that the United States risks losing out to China.

For the Republicans, China is an existential threat, and President Trump warned recently, about the former vice president, “China would own our country if Joe Biden got elected.”

For the Democrats, China is a challenge, but manageable. Still, Mr. Biden has pledged that as far as pandemic preparedness goes, America “will never again be at the mercy of China and other foreign countries in order to protect our own people.”

Even if this tough talk is mostly campaign-trail rhetoric, the next president of the United States should beware of casting America’s China policy in nationalistic terms.

Over the long run, Beijing’s brand of hyper-nationalism is likely to undermine the Chinese Communist Party’s bid for world leadership; that posture worries too many governments.

In the short term, though, it is an effective rallying cry within China, and Washington must be careful not to inflame the sentiment — which could compel Beijing to further harden its positions.

Nationalistic U.S. policies also complicate America’s efforts to mobilize its partners to push back together against China, and they risk alienating individuals of Chinese heritage who contribute to the dynamism of the American economy.

In short: The U.S. government should not try to out-China China.

Beijing has tried to turn the coronavirus pandemic into a public relations opportunity. Deflecting criticism about its early handling of the outbreak in Wuhan, it has boasted about its response at home and its exports of personal protective equipment, while criticizing the performance of Western countries.

In one survey from April of nearly 20,000 people across China, 81 percent of respondents said they were satisfied with the national government’s “information dissemination” during the pandemic. Some 89 percent said they were satisfied with its provision of “daily necessities and protection materials.”

But Beijing’s bragging isn’t playing so well abroad.

Some countries aren’t buying the Chinese government’s narrative. Australia, for example, has called for a formal investigation into the origins of the pandemic in China. (Beijing has fought back with sanctions on Australian beef and barley.)

China also faces a global backlash for repressing Uighurs and other ethnic minorities, cracking down on Hong Kong, increasing pressure on Taiwan, fighting with India at their disputed border and forcefully pressing its maritime claims in the South China Sea.

Beijing itself is concerned about the mounting discontent. According to Reuters, a think tank affiliated with the Ministry of State Security warned President Xi Jinping and top officials in April that hostility toward China was at its highest since the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.

And so even as Beijing has scolded foreign governments for meddling in what it considers to be its internal affairs, prominent Chinese officials — including Foreign Minister Wang Yi and China’s chief diplomat, Yang Jiechi — have been trying to mitigate the fallout of increased tensions and have signaled an interest in stabilizing U.S.-China ties.

Such overtures are an opportunity for Washington to recalibrate the relationship in its favor, provided it can play Beijing’s nationalism card right.

That would mean letting China’s chauvinistic strategy bump into its natural limitations, without tit-for-tat measures of America’s own.

Calibration matters. Washington must push back against Beijing in ways that Beijing can absorb without being discredited with its domestic audience: The Chinese government cannot afford to look passive in the face of apparent provocations.

For example, Washington should be more selective and more judicious than the Trump administration has been about when and how it conducts high-profile military patrols in the South China Sea or through the Taiwan Strait.

Beijing has played along before, trying to signal resolve while being careful to avoid outright confrontation, with largely symbolic military moves or rhetorical bluster.

But this is a tricky balancing act. Such gestures might temporarily appease any jingoism among the Chinese public — or they could nurture it over the long run.

This risk is one reason that Washington must do something to dissuade Beijing from playing the nationalism card, partly by organizing a more unified resistance with its partners in the Asia-Pacific region.

The governments of Australia, India, Japan and South Korea, among others, have grown increasingly concerned about China’s truculence. Yet they do not want to decouple from China to the same extent as the Trump administration has. Nor do they want to become instruments in a protracted U.S.-China competition.

But they would be receptive to greater coordination with Washington, especially if it reverted to a less unilateral foreign policy than Mr. Trump’s “America First” campaign.

At the same time, Washington should also take care not to suggest that it seeks regime change in China — or else it might give Chinese citizens more reason to rally around Mr. Xi instead of demanding that his government address the country’s acute domestic challenges, like slowing economic growth and environmental degradation.

Washington’s broad reprisals for China’s growing repression in Hong Kong could actually hurt the city’s residents more than the Chinese government, by compounding their loss of autonomy with financial uncertainty.

It would be more useful to propose asylum policies that would help any refugees from Hong Kong — as well as ethnic minorities persecuted on the mainland — resettle in the United States.

The U.S. government should also tone down its nationalism at home.

Sweeping restrictions on Chinese scholars, students and travelers in the United States can look like attacks on the whole of the Chinese people.

There are more proportionate responses to, say, suspected criminal activity by some individuals. And many Chinese students in the United States contribute enormously to America’s competitiveness in frontier technologies.

The Trump administration is reported to be considering banning all Chinese Communist Party members and their families from traveling to the United States. But the party counts roughly 92 million adherents — the equivalent of about 28 percent of the U.S. population — and many of them joined it more to further their career prospects than out of ideological conviction.

Washington’s best response to Mr. Xi’s increasingly nationalistic and authoritarian China is to adopt an asymmetric approach — revitalizing the relationships that have long anchored U.S. diplomacy while reaffirming the United States’ democratic values and institutions.

American nationalism will only beget more Chinese nationalism, and that would hurt the United States, especially in the short term. Better to let China’s strategy run its course, or run aground, on its own.

Jessica Chen Weiss (@jessicacweiss), a professor of government at Cornell, is the author of “Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations.” Ali Wyne (@Ali_Wyne) is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a nonresident fellow at the Modern War Institute.

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