The U.S. Needs to Get Out of the Way on China
Washington should start letting other countries take the lead.
“Is it a hawkish thing for Trump?”
“Is it a hawkish thing for Trump?”
This irritating little sentence—or variations of it—has been the soundtrack of my life for the past three years. And not a good soundtrack. More like the chorus of “Macarena” played loudly on a long-neglected violin. By a child. On repeat.
This dirge hit my ears over and over again in early 2020 while I was recruiting MPs in several countries to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC). The idea of IPAC is to build cross-party alliances around the world, with a view to pushing for coordinated policy reform.
Nearly everywhere, and especially on the European left, the anti-Trump chorus echoed along the halls of the world’s parliaments. I was frustrated initially and a little aloof in dismissing the concern as superficial, wrong, irresponsible. “But what about your own debt/interference/dependency?” went my plaintive, and mainly futile, rejoinder.
With hindsight, I realize that this little complaint is a near-perfect encapsulation of how we are losing the narrative war on China. Forget the bit about former U.S. President Donald Trump, which was an exacerbating symptom, not the cause. Beijing wants the world to think that only the United States cares about China’s behavior, and that any other country expressing concern is doing its bidding.
“Five Eyes decays into US fan club, lapdog” went a 2020 Global Times editorial.
“Being the lapdog of America is degrading their [Japan’s] National Pride and Reputation” another argued last week.
It’s a powerful argument. Anti-Americanism is latent, if not explicit, in many countries. Even where people are not overtly fearful of association with U.S. interests, it’s hard to find those who sympathize with American foreign policy.
Putting it bluntly, many in Europe listen to the United States on China and aren’t buying it. Critics point to U.S.-led rhetoric on “competition,” and they hear efforts to preserve American hegemony. They listen to talk of “winning” and hear U.S. triumphalism and jingoism. They listen to U.S. indignation about Uyghurs and Hong Kong and see selective weaponization of human rights for foreign-policy ends. “We followed you into Iraq. We won’t follow you to the South China Sea,” is the whispered complaint.
There’s a deep belief that the United States would be engaged in efforts to contain China even if Beijing weren’t behaving so badly. How else could French President Emmanuel Macron speak with a straight face about “equidistance” between Beijing and Washington? I’m constantly surprised by how few colleagues in the United States understand this.
In case it needs to be repeated, Beijing’s behavior really is a problem for every country in the world. The so-called rules-based system really is in peril. International treaties are on life support.
While we shouldn’t dismiss the ability of Europeans to deploy anti-American arguments to excuse their inertia on China, the fact of the matter is that U.S. ownership of the issue turns off everybody else, with very few exceptions. Much as I hate to say it, it’s rendering the China brief toxic.
Don’t get me wrong. The rest of the world isn’t going to succeed in constraining Beijing without the United States. But a global issue needs global ownership—and non-U.S. leadership. This isn’t the same thing as the United States “leading from behind.” It’s merely about the U.S. leaving enough space for others.
Right now, there is no space. The United States gobbles up all the China oxygen and is perceived elsewhere as rabidly engaged in great-power competition. Take any angle, and the United States is already up front, as the ever-proliferating number of congressional committees with bits of China in their purview bears testament. There’s probably been another created since I started drafting. The more the U.S. dominates the brief, the more powerful Beijing’s narrative becomes, and the less willing the rest of the world is to act.
It’s not all bad. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s “de-risking” was a conscious effort to insert some European flavor into the diplomatic lexicon around China. “It’s not decoupling,” we are unreliably informed. This is counternarrative, pure and simple, and a very sensible and laudable strategic effort to distance from the U.S. and demonstrate that the challenge is bigger than any single country. The very fact that it has become necessary to distance from Trump-era China policy ought to be enough to corroborate the argument here.
To deprive Beijing’s narrative of its undeniable power, we have to expose it as a lie. Efforts from Washington will only reinforce it. So when people like von der Leyen move to create space, serious strategists in America should be advising U.S. leaders to applaud and fall into line where they can, counterintuitive though it may be. Summarizing very unfairly, and very crudely: On China, the United States needs to shut up to put up.
Luke de Pulford is the founder and executive director of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China.
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