China is still more important than Russia
Instead of pulling back from the world, America needs to strengthen relations with a wider range of countries and build a more unified approach at home
A steady stream of ongoing atrocities and war crimes in Russia’s war against Ukraine and the West’s reactions to its moves understandably have dominated headlines over the past few weeks. But China will likely play a much bigger role in America’s politics and foreign policy in the long run, for a range of reasons:
China’s bigger and more integrated in the international system. China’s economy is about ten times the size of Russia’s, and that economy is much more intertwined with America and the rest of the world. Though it’s set to age rapidly in coming decades, China has about ten times more people than Russia, about 1.4 billion people versus 144 million.
China uses a wider range of tools to shape the world. China has a more aggressive strategy to shape the international system, using economic engagement with governments and large companies along with a sophisticated mix of troll power and soft power tools to shape the global landscape.
China will work to expand its reach as Russia becomes more isolated. No matter what happens on the ground in Ukraine in the coming months, it seems inevitable that Russia will become even more isolated globally and weaker economically – leaving a vacuum that China could fill.
This is not an argument for disengaging on Russia and Ukraine, much less letting Putin have his way so we can focus on China as some have suggested. Instead, it’s an argument for dealing with both countries in a balanced way that stays connected with the rest of the world and what most Americans support.
The Biden administration is correctly prioritizing efforts to impose costs on Russia and working for ways to end the Ukraine war. The spillover effects of Putin’s actions are significant – as David Rothkopf pointed out, some of Putin’s favorite authoritarians are riding high in Hungary, Serbia, and France this past week, a transnational political dynamic noted by Fareed Zakaria, too.
But China’s continued global role means that the United States will need to multitask in the world as it deals with challenges at home.
Buckle up for a wave of political ads on China in the 2022 midterm elections
Russia’s war in Ukraine understandably dominates the news, and other issues like Iran and immigration will pop up as the year goes on.
But it looks like 2022 could be a year when China is front and center in America’s political conversation. As political ad tracker Kyle Tharp notes in his newsletter, China dominates the early 2020 midterm election ads, with at least 77 Republican politicians and outside groups running Facebook ads mentioning China in just the last month alone.
The main reason: most Americans see China as connected to their lives, especially economically. Recent public opinion surveys find broad and deep concerns about China among the American public, with majorities seeing China as America’s top competitor in recent years. Many of these concerns about China are focused on economic competition and trade as much as geopolitics and diplomacy.
One political leader in Ohio recently sought to draw the linkages between domestic and foreign policy in ways that tap into America’s competitive spirit.
Tim Ryan, a Democrat currently representing Ohio’s 13th Congressional district and now running for U.S. Senate, offers a clear message about China in this new sixty-second ad. His pitch to voters offers a template for Democrats who are actually interested in getting elected – a tough task given the rocky political terrain they face this year.
Ryan’s core message defines the challenge as “us versus China” and he grounds his message centered on economic competition, focusing on jobs and price increases as well as the ideological struggle between capitalism versus communism, rather than ugly identity politics. He slams Washington for getting involved in stupid and pointless domestic political fights instead of investing in America’s workers and taking on China. “Never bet against Ohio,” Ryan says at the end.
A liberal patriot narrative for competing with China
Now would be a good time for the Biden administration and Democrats to offer a more cohesive story about its approach to China. But President Biden barely mentioned China in his State of the Union address last month, missing an opportunity to offer a constructive way for Americans to think about China. But there’s still time.
Here are four key points for forming a constructive message and policy approach on China:
1. Support investments to help America’s workers and companies compete economically. There’s a strong public appetite for messages that argue for making investments in America’s ability to compete with China. We can do this by continuing to invest in infrastructure and step up our investments in research and development and providing incentives for private companies to help make America’s supply chain more secure, as outlined in proposed legislation Congress has considered for nearly a year now.
2. Remind Americans that China is not ten feet tall. While China certainly possesses a lot of political and economic power, it also has a lot of economic and political vulnerabilities at home. As Brookings scholar Ryan Hass reminds us, alarmism that puffs China up is counterproductive. At the same time, the fringe left-wing fear mongering that warns against a “new Cold War” is equally unhelpful, too. A more balanced approach to describing the competitive challenge will be more effective.
3. Stress that America’s model has strong appeal around the world. For all of its faults and challenges at home, America still has broad appeal around the world, especially compared to China’s model. Few countries are comfortable with how China operates, as Peter Juul points out.
4. Engage the rest of the world in ways that strengthen coordination on security and economic prosperity. It’s not enough to just rest on our laurels and assume that the rest of the world will automatically move in America’s direction just because our model still has stronger global appeal. This will require paying closer attention to the “swing” states in the world, the countries in places like Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and the Western Hemisphere that are key actors in this broader global competition.
In short, the times require a more engaged approach in the world, rather than retrenchment and restraint, an alternative proposed by some that has very little public support and is increasingly pushed to the margins by global events. It also means that divisive political arguments that seek to fragment rather than build coalitions inside of America are less likely succeed - the foreign policy sectarianism that has dominated America for years confused the American public and creates openings for America’s competitors in the world.
Even as Russia’s war in Ukraine rages, Americans are looking for a clear strategic narrative on China, too.