Authoritarian-populism spectre hanging over US-China relations

November 18, 2021 09:59
Photo: Reuters

During the COP26 Climate Change conference, participants were pleasantly surprised by a “shock agreement” between US and China to take joint-action to combat climate change. Similarly, during the recent “virtual summit” between President Biden and President Xi Jinping, Biden was careful to emphasize there was a need to “establish some common sense guardrails,” to prevent the competition between US and China from spiraling into open conflict.

Analysts argued such positive developments show cooperation between Washington and Beijing is still possible and both are not destined for full-scale confrontation. But before we relax and assume US-China tensions can now be managed peacefully, we need to “peek behind the curtains” at some of the underlying drivers of US-China tensions and ask whether that is really the case. We will then realize the longer-term future of US-China relations may not be so rosy.

In particular, the rise of Authoritarian-Populists movements in the West have introduced an unstable element to potentially “spoil” US-China relations by painting relations of both countries as an existential conflict between diametrically opposing “civilizations”.

What are authoritarian-populists? They advocate prioritizing collective security over liberal autonomy of the individual. This is combined with rhetoric that “questions and opposes legitimate authority of the “establishment” as well as developing an “us” vs “them” framework to scapegoat groups for the problems suffered by the populist supporters.

Political scientists debate and disagree on the cause and effect as to the rise of populist movements, but the crucial point here is that the rise of authoritarian-populist parties and leaders itself is an undisputable fact. The Trump administration was a clear example. Trump castigated the “Washington elites” as out-of-touch and attacked Mexicans as “rapists” and called the Covid pandemic a “Chinese virus” , all the while he was perceived to be undermining US democracy and its institutions. While Trump was defeated in November 2020, there is no guarantee that Trump or a Trump-styled populist won’t run again for election. He still commands broad loyalty within the GOP and remains a viable candidate among his base. His re-election or any populist successor gaining the future presidency is well within the realm of possibility.

The question then is this: How will an authoritarian-populist successor to Biden handle US-China relations? We’ve seen a sharpening of “us” vs “them” public rhetoric from Trump directed at China, this may well get worse if Trump or any other populist leader assumes the presidency after Biden. Such precedent has been set with Trump’s first term, with potentially serious ramifications for US-China relations.

For example, Kiron Skinner, a former Trump appointed US State Department official, was on record stating that the fight with China is with a “really different civilization and ideology and the United States hasn’t had that before…its also striking that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian.” This borderline racist comment was condemned for “essentializing” China as a fundamentally alien “other” that is opposed to the US. But it is also quite revealing on the mindset within the Trump administration, that they set a narrow criteria for other states who are “deemed worthy” for the US to cooperate with, ones that are “like them”. Whereas China is beyond the pale because the US shares no common values with it. It harks back to the infamous thesis of “Clash of Civilizations” by Samuel Huntington , where conflicts would be fought on civilizational lines. That theory has been rejected and discredited by many international relations scholars. Yet we have Trump and his officials advocating a strikingly similar position. This opens up a dangerous possibility.

According to the logic of Skinner, since there are no grounds for cooperation with China, the only option that remains is confrontation, one that can spiral out of control given the lack of adequate communication channels between the US and Chinese military.

One only has to look to Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley, to see the danger. He had to call his Chinese PLA counterpart twice to reassure them the US was not about to launch an attack on China . In one sense it is comforting that Milley was there to calm Chinese fears over a US attack ordered by Trump. But on the other hand, it is worrying that Milley had to make those calls in the first place. It illustrates the level of fear and distrust that has seeped into US-China relations when Beijing suspects Washington of a sneak attack due to Trump’s populist antics. Can we really be sure that there will be such checks and balances when the next US populist leader assumes the presidency, especially if US institutions and accountability mechanisms continue to be eroded by these very authoritarian-populists?

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Donald Trump still commands broad loyalty within the GOP and remains a viable candidate among his base. Photo: Reuters

Research Fellow, Centre for China-US Relations and Hong Kong, Hong Kong Policy Research Institute