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The Case of United States Views of Its Ties with China
Published June 24, 2020
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U.S. views of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have been hardening for at least two decades, from George W. Bush characterizing China in the 2000 presidential campaign and the first months of his presidency as a “strategic competitor,” to the Obama administration’s pursuit of a “pivot” to the Asia–Pacific in response to China’s growing assertiveness, to the Trump administration describing China’s rise as signaling the “return of an era of great power competition.” Does this trend reflect changes in U.S. self-conception and national identity? Evolving assessments of threat in light of Chinese behavior and what these imply about the regime’s intentions? A reaction to shifts in the overall balance of power between the two countries, perhaps a reflection of a declining superpower facing a rising challenge, “tragically” destined to participate in a “contest for supremacy in Asia” that will ineluctably result in a “Thucydides trap” or war of hegemonic transition? Or is it instead an inevitable clash between a liberal, democratic, rule of law capitalist hegemon and a resilient authoritarian challenger that is a communist dictatorship increasingly reliant on aggressive nationalism since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and evolving rapidly towards national socialism or fascism? While each of these perspectives provides some purchase on the recent developments in U.S. – China relations as seen from Washington, this chapter focuses on the role of national identity, arguing that identity is by no means the sole or best explanation, but that it is an important factor that should not be overlooked or underestimated.

This chapter explores the role of national identity, which lies somewhere between liberalism’s focus on domestic regime type and constructivism’s focus on the importance of iterated interactions and norms in accounting for change in the U.S. view of China. This is by no means intended to deny the value of other schools of thought in IR; indeed, given that the theoretical boundaries between these approaches are highly permeable, scholars all read and react to each other’s insights, and no truly grand unified theory of international relations has emerged to definitively account for all aspects of international society.

In looking at the foreign policy of the United States toward China, national identity issues have played an important role in American assessments of how to view and respond to China’s rise in recent decades. Insofar as U.S. policy is most directly shaped by senior policymakers and elected politicians whose authority stems from popular elections and who must therefore ensure that they explain their actions in terms that are popularly accepted, this chapter relies on the imperfect but nonetheless useful proxy metric of official U.S. policy documents, and current and former senior leadership statements. It also takes note of arguments by prominent foreign policy commentators, as well as overall characterizations of the zeitgeist of the U.S. mood across two decades to explore the theme of how American identity can help explain changes in U.S. policy towards the PRC.

Additionally, while recognizing that the roots of bilateral tensions are not new,15 tensions between the U.S. and China have certainly been on the rise in recent years, most notably since 2000 and especially since 2008. While the focus of this essay is on U.S. national identity, that identity—at least insofar as is relevant to U.S. – China policy—has increasingly been framed around a series of value divergences that have led American leaders to make increasingly stark normative critiques of the PRC and articulate America’s self-identity in contradistinction to that of China (though, as the discussion of the second image reversed school above shows, the lines between national identity and foreign policy are permeable and causality can run both ways).

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