The foreign policy canyon between Americans over China

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To make sense of these fascinating times, endless study is required. As the tried-and-true Chinese proverb has it, “Thought without learning is perilous.” My political risk firm recently commissioned a poll of 2,004 respondents — conducted by the public policy research agency Public First — on the American public’s foreign policy opinions ahead of the pivotal 2020 election. 

The results make for startling reading over many subjects, no more so than the yawning partisan divide over what to do about a rising China. This poll ought to be compulsory reading for whoever is the occupant of the White House after Jan. 20, 2021 — it details present U.S. attitudes toward the rest of the world. As mixed martial artist Max Holloway puts it, “Numbers don’t lie. Women lie, men lie, but numbers don’t lie.”  

And the numbers have a tale to tell. Whereas Joe Biden’s supporters see Russia and China as relatively equal great power rivals in this era, Donald Trump’s voters overwhelmingly name Beijing as Washington’s greatest strategic challenge. Overall, 44 percent of those polled named China as one of America’s five top rivals, with 31 percent putting it first. 

But this seeming unanimity is deceptive. Russia edges China out when respondents were asked with which rival the U.S. is “too soft.” Thirty-eight percent of Biden voters believe the U.S. is too soft on Russia, but just 16 percent of Trump voters agree. Conversely, this means that among Trump supporters, Beijing supplants Moscow as the government they feel America is too soft towards: 33 percent of them select it, compared to only 20 percent of Biden voters. 

This pattern is strikingly borne out when people, rather than countries, are named. When asked who are the most dangerous foreign leaders, Kim Jong Un of North Korea comes first with 59 percent, 50 percent mention Vladimir Putin of Russia, and 38 percent name Xi Jinping of China. But again, the partisan split is telling. Of those who list Xi among the top three most dangerous, 45 percent plan to vote for Trump and 42 percent, for Biden. Of those who list Putin, only 27 percent are Trump supporters; 59 percent are with Biden. 

As with much else, the COVID-19 pandemic — and who is primarily responsible for it — lies behind the general increasing suspicion of China, as well as the partisan division over China between Democrats and Republicans. Our poll asked who is primarily to blame for the pandemic, and the answers resulted in a dead heat between the Chinese government (37 percent) and Donald Trump (36 percent). But 62 percent of Trump voters blame the Chinese government primarily, compared to 23 percent of Biden supporters. Conversely, 65 percent of Biden voters blame Trump primarily for the coronavirus devastation. 

This division is further corroborated in the poll. Seventy-eight percent of Trump supporters agree with the direct statement that the virus’s spread around the world is primarily the fault of the Chinese government, while 34 percent of Biden voters think so. Biden’s voters exhibit a marked unwillingness to take diplomatic action against Beijing as a result of COVID-19 (29 percent favor this approach), but 66 percent of Trump voters strongly endorse this action. 

It is this party division over blame for the virus that appears to be driving the foreign policy argument in American public opinion. A significant 75 percent of Trump supporters hope that whoever is elected gets tougher with China; 53 percent of Biden adherents agree. 

In one sense, both candidates are following their bases over Sino-American relations. Biden — reversing course after years of following the Washington foreign policy establishment’s dovish take on China — now calls Xi a “thug” because of his human rights abuses in Tibet and Xinjiang province, and has pledged to get tough on Beijing. At the same time, however, his foreign policy team advocates pushing China hard strategically and on trade terms, but working harmoniously with Beijing on transnational issues such as global warming, pandemics and perhaps even global economics. 

All this explains the Biden camp’s hesitancy in punishing China for its role in propagating COVID-19 or singling it out 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 coronavirus story and an unreliable rising superpower that cannot be trusted and must be strategically contested. 

For those of us on the right, if you believe — as I do — in Chinese culpability for indifferently allowing the spread of the virus, then we find ourselves in a cold war based on differing first principles of existence. Biden and his supporters are not prepared to go this far, naively hoping a dual-track strategy with Beijing is possible. Our poll makes this seminal division in American public opinion thinking clear, as well as the reasons for it. Indeed, the numbers do not lie. 

Dr. John C. Hulsman is president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a global political-risk consulting firm headquartered in Milan, Germany and London. A life member of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, Hulsman is a contributing editor for Aspenia, the flagship foreign policy journal of The Aspen Institute, Italy.

Tags 2020 presidential election China aggression Donald Trump Joe Biden Kim Jong Un partisan politics US-China relations Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping

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