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The Sino–U.S. National Identity Gap and Bilateral Relations
Published July 30, 2021
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The national identity gap between China and the United States has become increasingly apparent. Under Xi Jinping, China has sought to reclaim its historical greatness and proclaimed itself to be a responsible great power that offers a credible alternative to Western values, while also promoting increasingly authoritarian policies at home, complete with extensive repression in Xinjiang and renewed state control of the economy. Assertions of U.S. national identity were somewhat muted under Donald Trump, confused by the battle between those who supported the administration’s “America First” policy, its transactional approach to foreign affairs, and its deemphasis on human rights and democracy promotion in U.S. foreign policy, and those who worried about the global
repercussions of an isolationist, nativist policy. For a time, the United States seemed more preoccupied with its trade war with China than with claims that the United States should act as the global protector of human rights and democracy.

The COVID-19 pandemic further complicated already tense Sino–U.S. relations and called both countries’ national identities into question. While China had, as of spring 2021, succeeded in keeping its COVID-19 outbreak remarkably small, the damage caused by its initial suppression of medical reports, along with successful virus mitigation in a number of non-authoritarian states, called into question its claim to be a responsible world power on the basis of its pandemic performance. Meanwhile, the Trump administration failed to protect U.S. citizens from catastrophic death tolls and prevented the United States from taking a leading role in resolving this global crisis. In January 2021, the Biden administration took office with a focus on swiftly ending the pandemic, while also reasserting the traditional U.S. global leadership role.

When combined with its assessment of U.S. power after the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and of U.S. domestic social and political instability evident throughout 2020-2021, the pandemic has strengthened China’s perceptions of the United States as a country in decline, and of China as a “risen” great power that should now play a major role in shaping the global order. At the same time, although U.S. policy towards China remains firm despite the presidential transition, the underlying rationale has shifted from the “America First” approach of the Trump administration to the democratic values-infused approach of the Biden administration. As the world struggles to move beyond the pandemic, the national identities of China and the United States are increasingly defined in opposition to each other and seem likely to drive an ever more challenging bilateral relationship in the coming years.

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