The health of Sino-American relations will be an important bellwether of American economic and national security success in the years to come. Because China is so important to America’s future, the United States must get it right with how it understands the threat (or lack thereof) from China. Getting it wrong could pose dire consequences to the United States. Even with the stakes as high as they are, threat is not a completely objective measure; subjectivity is a core feature of America’s threat perception surrounding China. The intrinsic ambiguity of the threat demands that Americans expend energy to understand the various biases that distort and impact Sino-American relations. Due to the scale of the Sino-American relationship, it is important to delineate the American sources of bias that influence domestic perceptions of one of America’s largest trading partners – and potentially greatest power competitor.
The United States is caught in a challenging spot between its historical containment policies and more recent overtures of engagement with respect to China.1 Even as the George W. Bush and Barack Obama Administrations looked at new ways to engage with China around shared objectives such as anti-terrorism, economics, and North Korea, the vestiges of yesteryear’s containment still abounded.2 Both administrations vacillated depending on global events and perception, and they utilized varying measures of pro-China, anti-China, and even a pro-Asia derivative. Complicating the relationship further, policies of engagement abounded in the economic space while containment generally appeared in the military and political arena. Today’s simultaneously disparate overtures of containment and engagement by the Donald Trump Administration can be seen in a host of US actions. With respect to containment, America has boosted financial support of Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and other key Asian partners.3 The United States has also opposed China’s launch of the Multilateral Development Bank (MDB) Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). While in the past the United States played a global role in the development banking arena, China’s power and influence has grown substantially with the creation of the AIIB—in spite of America’s efforts to curb its success.4 Meanwhile, with respect to engagement, the United States continues to encourage China to partner on nuclear weapon non-proliferation, Sino-American trade and mutual economic stimulus, and animal rights.5
While lack of policy coherence between different presidential administrations is not uncommon, such seismic shifts in approaches to contain or engage is indicative of underlying interpretations of threat. Experts have noted the inherent limitations of containment for the United States as a viable approach today due to China’s global reach, thus leaving cost imposition as the only available option.6 Others have questioned this lack of policy coherence and even offered a structured approach of partial disengagement as a policy solution. Aaron Friedberg and Charles Boustany Jr. have proscribed a four part approach to offset challenges from China: adopting a tariff policy, increasing defensive measures to counter tech transfers to China, encouraging domestic innovation, and strengthening trade with key partners.7 Doctrines of containment or engagement, or hybrid solutions, reflect the policy output of the China threat calculus. Exploring the many actors who profess a dogmatic adherence to one of these frames is insightful to better understanding their levels of influence and bias around the China threat.
Economics also clearly play a large part in the Sino-American relationship—with the United States appearing to slip and China gaining steam on a relative scale. The strategic ramifications for the United States on the wrong side of a growth rate differential with China are significant. As noted by Paul Kennedy in The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, GDP growth differentials affect the strategic capabilities of great power competitors. China’s GDP growth compared with the United States’ GDP growth would suggest Sino-American friction.8 The American economy is growing at a more tepid rate than it has during prior decades with the highest US GDP growth for any one year in the last decade at 2.9% (2018).9 Putting this in perspective, the US economy grew at 4.2% annually from 1820-1889 and 3.7% from 1890-1948.10 The US may never see sustained 3% or higher growth again whereas China’s GDP has stayed above 6% since 1992.11 It should be noted, however, that China’s self-reported GDP metric is considered to be inflated by nearly 2% since local governments are rewarded for higher numbers.12 Even discounting the 2%, if China continues to grow with a sustained GDP above 4%, there will undoubtedly be strategic ramifications.
Now, let us turn our attention to the sources of bias that may be influencing America’s threat perception of China. Sources of bias can both inflate and deflate the perceived China threat beyond what may be an appropriate extrapolation from known facts. A revealing methodology for evaluating bias origins is understanding underlying interests of various actors. Some domestic actors are motivated to build a more threatening perception of China while others are motivated to decrease notions of threat from China. Critical to this endeavor is determining whether a group is likely to inflate or deflate the China threat based upon whether their interests align or misalign with China.
Several actors inflate the China threat narrative in the United States. This includes the military industrial complex, attempting to justify a large Department of Defense budget. Actors in this group are national security elites, both within the Department as well as those companies providing defense-related services.13 Politicians attempting to distract from domestic issues at home would also benefit from inflating the China threat. There is evidence of electoral benefits for politicians in discussing a threatening environment and increasing defense spending during times of elections.14 It has been noted that elites “appear to have the motive, means, and opportunity to offer greatly distorted national security narratives.”15 Foreign countries in the Pacific who are concerned by China’s encroachment, both economic and military, would also inflate the China threat as to encourage the United States to increase its regional involvement. These countries, such as Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, frequently raise concerns about China’s activities in both international governing bodies as well as with American policymakers as part of their diplomatic agenda.16 Finally, one could imagine how human and animal rights and environmental groups opposed to China’s policies would also be located in this camp of building a negative narrative around China. These groups could further anti-China messaging to inspire support and enact change in policy towards China. While coming from quite different perspectives, these disparate groups comprise an uncoordinated alliance that collectively forms an anti-China lobby. Their actions, communications, and lobbying efforts in the domestic environment paint an elevated threat from China.
Diving a bit deeper into the military industrial complex, the elevation of enemy connotations of threat and threat narratives coincide with its desire for additional resource allocation to the defense industry. As Kenneth Mayer noted, the military’s “budgetary raison d’être” in the past was the Soviet Union.17 If the essence of an industry is to protect against something tangible, that raison d’être would need to exist in order to secure resources. The creation of a narrative highlighting the threat would go a long way in making the threat a reality and securing additional resources to stem the threat. Creating a more threatening visage of China would provide a modern-day budgetary raison d’être.
While friendly Sino-American relations furthers an environment conducive to business growth, some industries are likely to inflate the China threat. Businesses that operate in import-competing industries, and that have a protectionist angle, such as those in natural resource, energy, and domestic manufacturing, may tend to inflate the China threat. One such example is when the American solar panel industry filed a petition with the Commerce Department to raise tariffs on China’s solar panels coming into the United States. The US solar panel industry built a narrative that China was providing illegal subsidies, conducting massive dumping of solar products, and taking manufacturing and jobs in the United States “while China’s solar industry pollutes its own people.”18 While the minority in the business industry, those US industries benefiting from protectionism view China as a detriment to their livelihood and continue to disparage China and paint it in a threatening light.
In contrast to threat inflators, cadres of business executives, members of the entertainment industry, and academia deflate perceptions of a Chinese threat. American business elites who benefit from economic engagement with China are generally pro-China. The desire for American companies to collaborate with China and ameliorate notions of threat can be summed by the simple question of “why would they partner so closely if a net benefit did not exist?”19 In a similar vein, the entertainment industry is a threat deflator partly because it has to be in order to do business in China.20 Due to China’s film review process where it only allows foreign films into China that are pre-approved, Hollywood must avoid many of the threat narratives in the three “T” areas (Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen). With China poised to become the largest consumer of films in the world and thus a larger share of Hollywood’s revenue share, Hollywood is carefully avoiding threatening narratives around China.21 Finally, academia provides many examples of successful Sino-American partnership and productive collaboration. While several academic partnerships exist, the New York University-Shanghai Program is one of the first Sino-US research universities where students receive dual degrees from New York University and East China Normal University, accredited in both countries.22 The Hopkins-Nanjing Center is another such academic partnership. With nearly 3,000 alumni, this joint Johns Hopkins-Nanjing University Center’s goal of training “leaders with superior cultural and linguistic proficiency to manage this burgeoning relationship” is based on a foundational principle of partnership and shared success.23 Similar to the diverse nature of the groups attempting to inflate the China threat, these business, entertainment, and academic groups deflate the threat through a shared goal of elevating partnership.
Pro-China business groups wax eloquently about the benefits of common economic advantages for both countries. American companies—namely in the telecommunication, automobile, and technology industries—desire additional markets and new customers who possess disposable income for their goods as well as more inexpensive manufacturing. These companies are pro-China in how they speak about China and their shared future. American companies see considerable business value in Chinese partnership largely because of the “smiley curve.” This U-shaped curve derives its name from the smiley-face icon and is indicative of higher costs at both the beginning of the product life cycle (product creation) as well as at the end (product sale). The middle of the product life cycle is the manufacturing portion and is relatively cheaper. Because of this model, American companies do the majority of work at the beginning and end of the curve while China executes the middle stages of manufacturing.24 It is a mutual partnership that encourages American businesses to rely on Chinese partnership. Those benefiting from this model rarely speak ill publicly of China.
A thriving Sino-American relationship is paramount to the success of the film and broader entertainment industry. Notwithstanding the pre-approval process that warrants close coordination between Hollywood and China, Hollywood’s revenue from China is only increasing and diverse interests from American and Chinese audiences allows for the hedging of bets on any particular film’s success. Major motion pictures that fail to perform at the US box office are sometimes enthusiastically received in China. Films have the potential of quintupling returns in the Chinese market as opposed to the US box office. For example, Universal and Comcast’s 2016 movie Warcraft was a flop in North America making only $47 million but earned $220 million in China.25 Hollywood is also looking at ways to ensure movie success in both markets such as deliberately targeting both American and Chinese markets. The Great Wall was one such example in 2016 where it was co-produced by Hollywood (Universal/Comcast) and China’s film industry (Legendary East, Le Vision and China Film Group).26 Toning down notions of threat from China is thus in the best interest of Hollywood as it looks to maximize its profits.
Implications of Potential Bias
Consider the American marketplace of ideas around the China threat likened to the water temperature in a traditional bathtub with separate hot and cold water spigots. The particular spigot that you turn up more will determine the ultimate water temperature. Narratives on the China threat similarly flow through dueling spigots, wherein the flow from the “hot” spigot, represents a negative, or inflationary, bias while positive, or deflationary, narratives flow through the “cold” spigot and signify a positive slant. Similar to water temperature, the perceived China threat is beholden to the throughput of these metaphorical narrative spigots for bias. An increased throughput would theoretically correspond to a hotter or colder temperature of the threat. The key is that the bias is moving the threat perception away from the actual threat reality to a place consistent with the desired threat level of the interested parties.
When looking at the threat posed by China against the US and the associated narratives around the China threat, examining this notion that China’s actions could be less important than the American domestic players and the narratives they create is intriguing. Alan Wolfe’s The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Threat noted that US domestic factors, more so than Soviet factors during the Cold War, directly led to the perceived rise and fall of the Soviet threat. Wolfe believed that rather than Soviet action, American domestic issues led to the rise of the Soviet threat. These issues in the 1960s and 1970s centered on the American political party system, dynamics of electoral campaigns, bureaucratic politics in the Pentagon, rivalries between different branches of government, and foreign policy and economic disagreements between the elites.27 The idea that domestic politics and biased narrative creation would be driving an artificial notion of the China threat today is not a new concept, but one that is often overlooked.
Recent events appear to show a slowing of the positive bias spigot as cracks are starting to form in the pro-China movement. Americans are speaking out against the Chinese government’s failure to contain COVID-19.28 Public discourse in the United States centers on China’s suppression of information, playing down the virus’ significance, and limited cooperation with outside experts.29 This negative spigot may be opening wider. As American and Chinese interests begin to misalign, the underpinnings of economic growth through common objectives are at risk. A prime example is whether much of the economic partnership in the auto industry with major American companies such as Tesla and Cadillac betting on China will be scuttled or propped up for success.30, 31 The anti-China lobby’s marketing of certain events could grow the enemy narrative at a level not commensurate with that which would be expected from China’s actions alone. The more that the domestic narrative around Covid-19 tends towards unfounded, anti-China stories instead of looking inward at potential missteps by the US response, bias will increase in the China threat. Understanding the sources of the narratives and the interests of particular groups will be critical. The mission of this article has been to identify deflators and inflators of the China threat and clarify otherwise distorted narratives. Americans must be cognizant of how sources of bias influence the conversation and impact the perceived Sino-American relationship. With competing narratives, the real question is which bias spigot—enemy or partner—will increase its throughput in the upcoming years based on the efforts of domestic actors. Also, foreign actors are increasingly exerting more influence on perceptions of Americans in this space. The greatest travesty would be if we unintentionally sabotaged our most important relationship by not noticing when our public discourse is chock full of biased narratives on China. Identifying sources of bias, publicly declaring their danger, and limiting their impact on American perception of threat from China is necessary to maintaining an accurate assessment of the Sino-American relationship. Americans should take a proactive approach to identify this bias and its resulting narratives because maintaining a passive approach will only lead to more of the same.
1. Robert G. Sutter, U.S.-Chinese Relations: Perilous Past, Pragmatic Present (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), 51-63.
2. Andrew Browne, “The China Rethink,” The Wall Street Journal, 13 June 2015.
3. Anthony Cordesman, “China and the US,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 3 October 2018), https://www.csis.org/analysis/choosing-between-four-cs-conflict-and-containment-versus-competition-and-cooperation
4. Scott Morris, “Responding to AIIB U.S. Leadership at the Multilateral Development Banks in a New Era,” Council of Foreign Relations, September 2016.
5. Robert Zoellick, “The U.S. Doesn’t Need a New Cold War,” The Wall Street Journal, 19 May 2020.
6. Robert Zoellick, “The U.S. Doesn’t Need a New Cold War.”
7. Charles Boustany Jr and Aaron Friedberg, “Partial Disengagement: A New U.S. Strategy for Economic Cooperation with China,” The National Bureau of Asian Research, (November 2019): 3.
8. Paul Kennedy, “The Rise and Fall of Great Powers,” (New York: Vintage Book, 1989), xix-xxv.
9. GDP Growth (annual %)- United States, The World Bank, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.KD.ZG?locations=US
10. Phil Gramm and Michael Solon, “Finding America’s Lost 3% Growth,” The Wall Street Journal, 11 September 2017, A17.
11. GDP Growth (annual %)- China, The World Bank, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.KD.ZG?locations=CN
12. Wei Chen, Xilu Chen, Chang-Tai Hsieh, and Zheng Sung, “A Forensic Examination of China’s National Accounts,” Brookings Institute, March 2019.
13. Rodger A. Payne, “Thinking the Unthinkable About National Security Narratives” Prepared for a panel on “Thinking About Security” for the joint Annual Meeting of the International Security Studies Section of the International Studies Association and the International Security and Arms Control Section of the American Political Science Association; Springfield, MA; October 9-10, 2014, 5-6.
14. Kenneth Mayer, “Elections, Business Cycles, and the Timing of Defense Contract Awards in the United States,” in The Political Economy of Military Spending in the United States, edited by Alex Mintz (New York: Routledge, 1992) 15-17.
15. Payne, “Thinking the Unthinkable About National Security Narratives.”
16. Jane Perlez, “Tribunal rejects Beijing’s Claims in South China Sea.” New York Times, 12 July 2016.
17. Mayer, “Elections, Business Cycles, and the Timing of Defense Contract Awards in the United States,” 15.
18. Keith Bradsher, “China Charges Protectionism in Call for Solar Panel Tariffs.” New York Times, 21 October 2011.
19. James Fallows, “China Makes, the World Takes.” The Atlantic, July/August 2007, 68.
20. Tim Doescher, “How China is Taking Control of Hollywood.” The Heritage Foundation, December 2018. https://www.heritage.org/asia/heritage-explains/how-china-taking-control-hollywood
21. Doescher, “How China is Taking Control of Hollywood.”
22. “Who We Are,” New York University, 1 June 2020, https://shanghai.nyu.edu/about
23. “Our Legacy: Hopkins-Nanjing Center,” Johns Hopkins University, 9 May 2020, https://sais.jhu.edu/hopkins-nanjing-center/our-legacy-hopkins-nanjing-center
24. Fallows, “China Makes, the World Takes,” 68.
25. Scott Mendelson, “Box Office: ‘The Great Wall’ Targeted American and Chinese Audiences but Pleased Neither,” Forbes, 23 February 2017.
26. Mendelson, “Box Office: ‘The Great Wall’ Targeted American and Chinese Audiences but Pleased Neither.”
27. Alan Wolfe, The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Threat: Domestic Sources of the Cold War Consensus (Boston: South End Press, 1984), 11-12.
28. Richard Haass, “A Cold War With China Would be a Mistake,” The Wall Street Journal, 10 May 2020.
29. Haass, “A Cold War With China Would be a Mistake.”
30. Yang Jie, “Tesla Plugs in Own China Plant,” The Wall Street Journal, 23 October 2017.
31. Mike Colia, “The Quest to Make Cadillac Hum Again,” The Wall Street Journal, 26 October 2017.