Is China or Russia America’s defining rival?

What would it mean for the U.S. to instead choose China as its “other,” as nationalist conservatives would have it? One early indication comes from a recent report from the Department of Defense, which details America’s growing dependence on China’s manufacturing base, and the threat this poses to the country’s war-fighting capabilities. In the 1990s and 2000s, market conservatives could point to the Soviet collapse as an indictment of statism, and to global economic integration as an unambiguous good. Many of these market conservatives now find themselves making common cause with cosmopolitan liberals while nationalist conservatives rethink their commitment to laissez-faire, with an eye towards meeting the challenge posed by a Chinese party-state that sees industrial progress as central to its strategic ambitions. If Beijing, not Moscow, is public enemy No. 1, it is vitally important that the U.S. boost public investment in infrastructure and human capital, and that it steers U.S. firms to build resilient supply chains based in the Americas, not in China’s industrial heartland. Russia would still be a rival, I suspect, but it would be seen through a different lens: as a potential ally in the protracted conflict with China, as would become much clearer once Putin himself exits the scene.

Culturally, choosing China as an orienting enemy would have more ambiguous effects. One can imagine a xenophobic turn against Chinese immigrants, visitors, and students, which would have ugly consequences. Yet one can also imagine an embrace of the Chinese people on the grounds that Beijing’s authoritarianism serves a narrow elite more than it serves ordinary workers. The argument, in essence, would be that the U.S. stands against the party-state, not China as a whole, and that America would welcome a more just and inclusive Chinese government. Indeed, Pence made exactly this argument in his recent address. More broadly, an America waging a cold war on China might place a somewhat greater emphasis on cohesion and solidarity over cosmopolitanism, not least because disentangling the American and Chinese economies would entail considerable sacrifice on the part of the U.S. business elite—a sacrifice that would have to be justified in solidaristic terms.

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