Skip to main content

U.S. Politics Could Washington unite over China? In U.S. politics, nothing is certain

The arrest of a top Huawei executive in Vancouver, glimmers of co-operation among Canadian and American officials over the issue, fresh worries that a next-generation computer and phone network will pose security and privacy threats to the United States and the resumption of vital trade talks between Washington and Beijing.

Together these could have an entirely unexpected by-product as the American capital prepares for Tuesday’s State of the Union address: An unusual alignment between U.S. President Donald Trump and his Democratic rivals on the vexing problem of Beijing.

It would be an American political entente that could, in this hour of extreme division and bitter struggle over wall funding and undocumented migrants, prompt Washington to unite over China and perhaps take action against the surging new power in Asia.

Story continues below advertisement

‘’There are few areas of agreement in Washington today but there actually is a broad consensus – one that has been growing for years but recently has accelerated – that China is a very serious threat,’’ said Ira Shapiro, former U.S. trade negotiator and a consultant focused on Asia trade policy. ‘’There aren’t five people in Washington who accept every element of the Trump trade policy, but everyone agrees that this issue has to be addressed in an aggressive way.’’

All of Washington craves changing the subject from Mr. Trump’s wall. The new generation of lawmakers – chained to their tech devices and prizing digital security – is particularly wary of threats to personal privacy and troubled about technology theft. The unveiling of charges against Meng Wanzhou, full of accusations of stolen secrets and sinister trade ties to Iran, only heightened the stakes and focused Capitol lawmakers on the challenge from China, which runs a US$350-billion trade surplus with the United States.

There are, to be sure, dangers in a united front against a commercial and trade rival, particularly if the zeal wanders into xenophobia. The United States has a troubled history with Asia, having exploited Chinese workers during the 19th-century construction of the transcontinental railroad and having dispatched Japanese Americans to remote camps after the invasion of Pearl Harbor that drew the country into the Second World War.

Martin Feldstein, the Harvard economist and former chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, argues that the current conflict between the United States and China, though substantial, nonetheless is not a trade war. ‘’Although the U.S. has a large trade deficit with China, that is not the reason why it is imposing high tariffs on imports from China and threatening to increase them further after the end of the current 90-day truce on March 1,’’ Mr. Feldstein wrote Wednesday in an analysis for the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. ‘’The purpose of those tariffs is to induce China to end its policy of stealing U.S. technology.’’

Mr. Feldstein believes Chinese officials, whose offer to purchase sufficient amounts of American goods to eliminate the trade deficit in five years has been rejected by the Trump administration, are framing the struggle with the United States as a trade war because they calculated that ‘’buying large quantities of American products will lead the U.S. to end its tariffs.’’

The unifying power of the tensions with China gives them the potential to be 21st-century analogues to previous threats from Communist Soviet Union, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, respectively. In all three cases, the United States had important divisions – over civil rights, tax policies that favoured the wealthy, health-care – that were swept away, if only for a brief interval, by bipartisan unity in confronting threats beyond the country’s borders.

Indeed, previous State of the Union addresses are punctuated with presidential remarks about these threats, all intended to stoke embers of unity.

Story continues below advertisement

A century ago, Woodrow Wilson – who had used his 1913 State of the Union address, the first delivered in person by a president in more than a century, to campaign for a tariff – used his 1919 address to speak ominously of ‘’the transfusion of radical theories from seething European centres,’’ a clear reference to the spread of communist thought from Soviet Russia through the war-wrecked continent in the wake of the First World War. Ten months later federal agents raided the homes of suspected leftists, an episode now widely regarded as a shameful violation of personal rights.

Four decades later, in 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower delivered his annual address in an atmosphere of national panic after the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik satellite. ‘’The threat to our safety, and to the hope of a peaceful world, can be simply stated,’’ he said. ‘’It is communist imperialism.

"This threat is not something imagined by critics of the Soviets.’’

The 34th president both reflected and fuelled the bipartisan fear of Soviet expansionism and what he described as ‘’total cold war’’ by warning of an ‘’increasingly serious’’ threat from ‘’an advancing industrial, military and scientific establishment.’’

This tactic doesn’t always work, however. President Jimmy Carter, trying to rally the country to overcome the energy crisis of the late 1970s, borrowed a phrase from the 19th- and early-20th-century American philosopher William James and declared that the energy effort was the ‘’moral equivalent of war.’’ His critics noted that the phrase could be shortened to the catlike acronym “MEOW,’’ the entire undertaking was a dud, the President was the subject of late-night cabaret-style television ridicule – and Mr. Carter failed to win a second term. In American politics, nothing is certain.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to
Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons or for abuse. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

Cannabis pro newsletter