The reciprocal Sino-American blame game has encouraged practitioners from both countries to demonize and politicize and indeed seriously undermine each other’s public perceptions and mutual trust
The “China threat” is nothing new. However, in recent years, it has reached a new threshold of ideational dominance in the US, permeating every corner of America’s information space, from its elite political circles and mass media, all the way down to public opinion. This is primarily driven by the American practitioners’ desire for a narrative that can shape political debates in a way that enables a broadly bipartisan consensus that the rise of China is an existential threat. This threat narrative is propagated by both realists and neoliberals in the US, who agree that China is an unprecedented challenge to US primacy and the US-led “liberal international order.” What is happening here is “securitization,” or the process by which something becomes seen as a threat.
Wave of securitization
In this wave of securitization of the China threat, the economic agenda stands out as a major battleground. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been subjected to a lot of negative securitization by being framed as “predatory economics,” “debt trap” deals, and “treasury-run empire” which is blatantly by-passing regular market mechanisms and relentlessly pursuing China’s egoistic mercantilist interests. Regardless of what BRI members think of the project, American practitioners are keen on pushing the narrative that it not only threatens US primacy but will result in China subordinating smaller states. China-based tech giants such as Huawei and TikTok have also become convenient targets for demonization. Nowadays, no major Chinese company is safe from arbitrary restrictions that US partners must also comply with. All this anti-China backlash has been framed in terms of safeguarding American national security and Western values. Guided by its ambitious “Indo-Pacific Strategy,” the US’s military buildup against China can be justified.
China’s own reactive securitization of the “US threat”
The US securitization of the “China threat” has in turn provoked China’s own reactive securitization of the “US threat” in relation to its overall national security. In response to US sanctions, for instance, China has officially defined securing its supply chains from the US threat as a critical matter of national security. Overcoming some technological “bottlenecks,” largely attributed to the US’s decoupling policy, has been highlighted as a matter of national pride as well as the right to national survival. According to the China’s official concept of “Comprehensive National Security,” national security is explicitly broadened to cover any domestic or international dynamics that could impact China’s development and political and social stability, far beyond military threats.
In this context, the US has been identified as a major threat to China’s internal and external security. Thus, the two sides are deeply locked into a dangerous game of mutual securitization. In this highly securitized environment, seemingly minor actions or rhetoric by one side may trigger harsh reactions from the other side. The “security first” paradigm between China and the US has greatly reshaped their bilateral social, political, and economic relations. Moreover, due to each country’s mighty global influence, this Sino-American tension has raised graved concerns among international publics regarding the broader negative implications.
Are the US and China really each other’s primary threat?
While the two countries are highly interdependent on each other economically, they desperately need each other in addressing a wide range of common global issues and challenges. Ole Wæver, the leading scholar of “securitization theory” in International Relations, posits that the concept of security is all-inclusive but emptied. To securitize something simply means to endow it with a threatening identity. If American elites decide to securitize China, it doesn’t matter whether China is a real threat to the US. What matters is whether the US wishes China to be defined as a threat or not. It is largely a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Interestingly, once China is securitized, it becomes much more than a mere security issue. It also becomes a moralist concern. The China threat is assigned to a much broader context where American elites can seek their benefits in various ways, for example, by scapegoating, rallying support, and mobilizing resources. This is best exemplified by the broad consensus shared by the Democrats and Republicans to “blame China for everything” as an elusive source of common ground amidst an otherwise polarized political climate. Unfortunately, China has likewise been sucked into this information war of securitization. Now, both sides discursively frame each other as malign actors, adhering to a dichotomous good versus evil binary.
Dodging ‘Thucydides Trap’
This game of securitization is not limited to rhetoric and propaganda. It can also materialize by unleashing dire political consequences with wide implications. Unless this problem can be made manageable, the trend will only continue worsening. The reciprocal Sino-American blame game has encouraged practitioners from both countries to demonize and politicize and indeed seriously undermine each other’s public perceptions and mutual trust. This negative mindset has spilled over into the economic, political, and societal basis of Sino-American relations. Most worryingly, mutual mistrust has increasingly led to a military standoff between the two great powers, particularly in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea. With bilateral relations deteriorating so much, the world is dismayed with there being much dimmer prospects of collaboration between the US and China on some of the most urgent issues of global governance.
If policymakers firmly believe in the prophecy of the “Thucydides Trap,” China would be understood as sparing no effort to revolutionize the existing international order which would make conflict between US and China logical and inevitable. Realizing the danger of this securitization game, what’s important now is to have a second thought on the threat narratives popularized in mainstream outlets and help shift towards a discursive environment that is amenable to collaboration and trust. The nature of securitization, as generally understood in academia, provides hope that the problem can be better understood, and solutions can be realized. Understanding and acknowledging the subjectivities of security can help foster more constructive debates on both sides and perhaps leave room for dialogue.