Peace, Primacy, and Washington's Anti-China Politics
In Washington, the politics of the “China threat” have become indistinguishable from a grand strategy of primacy. While this introduces risks to regional stability because the requirements of primacy are at odds with the requirements of regional peace, the problem is much graver still.
Biden’s foreign policy team made its raison d’etre great-power competition—a faddish language that describes and rationalises America’s decades-long pursuit of primacy. It affirms the darker imperatives of US global pre-eminence that the United States pursued under presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama. But it does so in a vastly changed strategic context.
Internationally, both the balance of power and America’s place in Asia’s political economy have gradually shifted in ways that make primacy both unrealistic and dangerous. Domestically, a fractured and radicalised Republican Party has retaken the House of Representatives, creating a domestic context that promises greater intellectual incoherence and reactionary impulses within an overall commitment to primacy—a harbinger of future Republican rule in a country where no party controls the state for long. This conjuncture of domestic and international change is one in which the United States is unwittingly blundering down a path that imperils itself and the Asia-Pacific.
Peace Versus Primacy
Primacy—a strategy that requires a position of domination as both a means and end of policy—has been the orientation of US foreign policy for decades. Liberal hegemony, a term that US policymakers prefer, is not a repudiation of primacy but rather a liberally inflected Weltpolitik—a primacy that also takes institutions seriously as instruments of power and contests ideological issues in addition to material ones, even as it traffics in Aaron Sorkin-like idealist rhetoric.
As I wrote in Pacific Power Paradox, for the better part of a generation, US primacy co-existed with and, at times, even supplemented the “Asian peace”—the absence of new interstate wars in Asia since 1979. But this allowed US policymakers to conflate US power with regional peace. In Washington’s imagination, America was Asia’s “oxygen.”
But the Asian peace has been a layered peace, owing not to any single actor or factor but rather a collective regional willingness to abstain from war, held together by regional consensual norms and habits of multilateral diplomacy; intra-regional economic interdependence; pockets of good governance and democratisation; and, most crucially, great-power détente. It is not an accident that the year the United States normalised relations with China was the first year ushering in the Asian-peace era.
Whereas US primacy was once mostly compatible with such sources, today, it threatens them. Biden’s domestic industrial policy, techno-containment of China, selective hostility toward multilateral trade regimes, and rerouting of supply chains to fit American whims add up to a bid to forge a geoeconomic bloc that not only lacks a growth model for developing nations; it also necessarily disentangles regional interdependence. The rivalry process that fuels its America-first economic ambitions is the antithesis of great-power détente. “Competing” against China necessarily brings the United States into quiet alignment with authoritarian, ethnonationalist, and kleptocratic politics throughout the region. And from AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, and the United States) to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, US “minilateralism” is an exclusionary repudiation of the kind of inclusive Asian regionalism that has fostered stability. Peace requires sources of cohesion; primacy entails fracture.
A Fractured Party of Reaction
Washington’s synthesis of primacy with tropes about great-power competition is dangerous enough, but the fact that its energy comes as much from domestic political calculations as from geopolitical calculations dramatically amplifies the problem.
For Washingtonians, full-throated rivalry has been part of a larger bid to stitch the country together after the Trump years, and to work within the constraints of a Republican opposition whose hawkishness on China has shown no limits. US politics encourages both China threat inflation and political outbidding (who can look tougher on China). During the 2020 election, in fact, the key point of differentiation among Republicans was who could out-hawk whom on anti-China rhetoric and policy.
These political dynamics are causing the United States to whip itself into a kind of mania when it comes to China, all but ensuring that awareness about the risks of primacy will be shrouded by a discourse increasingly unmoored from reality. America’s recent overreaction to a Chinese surveillance balloon could become a leading indicator of a burgeoning derangement in which US political elites encourage us to perpetually live on the brittle outer edge of hyperbole.
How afield is the new far-right Republican Party?
Consider a few examples. The newly established House Select Committee on China, chaired by Republican Congressman Mike Gallagher, believes that China is actively waging a war on the United States and so the Committee’s mission is literally “to win this new Cold War with Communist China.” The Committee has barely begun its work and yet its members are already declaring China not just an ideological or geopolitical foe but also, ludicrously, a threat to food supplies, public health, medical supplies, and the “stability of our healthcare system.”
Consider too the bigger names in Republican Party politics beyond Trump. Nikki Haley, who, as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations threatened nuclear war against North Korea, has said that China “keeps her up at night.” Senator Josh Hawley, a Capitol Insurrection sympathizer, recently declared, “you can either be the party of Ukraine & the globalists or you can be the party of…the working people of America.” Marjorie Taylor-Greene is among the most influential members of the House, and she is an avid booster of QAnon, election fraud conspiracy theories, and the dissolution of the United States itself through “national divorce”—to say nothing of her knowledge-free statements about foreign policy.
Mike Pompeo, Trump’s Secretary of State, and Steve Bannon, Trump’s former campaign manager and one-time White House strategist, are leading voices in a wider right-wing network that now regularly fuses together domestic “culture war” issues and China-threat politics. This has led to gaslighting assertions that China is responsible for America’s domestic problems, from the growing economic insecurity of the US working class to rural America’s crisis with opiate addiction to George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in 2020.
Finally, Ron DeSantis, Republican Florida governor who appears most likely to displace Trump in 2024, has been a mashup of all the sentiments above—from purging China from Florida’s economy to fusing China-bashing with culture-war conspiracy theories. DeSantis’s statements about foreign policy show him to be part neoconservative hawk, part nationalist militarist, and all opportunist. His critics see his criticisms of Biden as scattershot and internally incoherent—“anything but Biden,” no matter what Biden does.
Take all this in as a totality. It all puts the Asian peace under greater strain, and there is nary a theory of stability in any of it. If you value an international order that bends toward democracy (not just toward democracies), then you are increasingly under siege. Republicans, like Democrats, are committed to American primacy, which is at odds with what peace requires. But they are also flagrantly incompetent and hostile to many of the liberal and democratic features that had historically made US primacy palatable and predictable to others.
Van Jackson, PhD, is a senior lecturer in international relations at Victoria University of Wellington, host of The Un-Diplomatic Podcast, and most recently the author of Pacific Power Paradox: American Statecraft and the Fate of the Asian Peace (Yale University Press).
This piece originally appeared in Australian Outlook.