There are a few issues on which the American populist left and populist right agree. Perhaps the most prominent is their shared opposition to war and interventionism. Thought leaders and scholars in both Bernie and Trump camps and the anti-war think tank community have expressed their displeasure and frustration with endless wars and interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the wider Middle East. However, the anti-intervention community has a blind spot.
Left- and right-populists have blamed corporate interests and the elite for foreign interventionism. Interestingly, though, they’ve had a blind spot toward China. While think tanks such as Quincy Institute rally against interventions in the Middle East, they have also been the flagbearers for China by labeling any criticism of China as either a call for a new Cold War or racism toward Asians. Interestingly, these views find support among people in office, such as Rep. Ilhan Omar (D, MN) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D, MI), and in scholarly circles, including in the anti-intervention I.R. departments at schools like Notre Dame, Columbia, and the University of California. Establishment Republicans such as Marco Rubio and even populist leaders such as Tom Cotton have been derided as hawks by their own party members. The inability to talk honestly about China could become the populist movement’s Achilles heel.
While America was reeling from 9/11 and distracted by Iraq and Afghanistan, there was a slow and steady change happening under America’s feet. In 2004, PBS covered the issue in a documentary, but it received very little attention then. The documentary was recently re-aired and got around 800,000 views on YouTube in less than a month.
That documentary was titled Is Wal-Mart Good for America? It unpacked the changing landscape in America, highlighting how small- and medium-sized enterprises proud to manufacture in America were arm-twisted by global conglomerates to move their manufacturing to a low-cost destination—that is, China. Companies such as Rubbermaid were forced to follow the dictates of “the market,” or in this case, Walmart, to China or lose shelf space in America’s largest retailer.
When the company went belly-up, its capital goods sold in auction were bought by the Chinese. As University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer laments, “America foolishly led the rise of China.”
To be fair, former President Trump was the first president to understand the scale of the China challenge. The Obamas, in their first media production out of office for Netflix, American Factory, depicted the worrisome state of manufacturing in middle America and the hollowing-out of the middle class in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. But the Obamas, like several military generals who served in Afghanistan, did not sound the alarm while they were in power. Senators such as Sherrod Brown and other senators and representatives from the Midwest have been sounding the alarm for quite some time, but the issue did not get national or international attention until Trump’s election campaign and his later term in office.
President Trump made the American electorate aware of the risks associated with dependence on Chinese markets and investments. While he was instrumental in sounding the alarm and initiating a discussion on the challenge of our times, even he was bound by establishment forces within his administration. During the trade wars, Peter Navarro would go on Fox and talk about China stealing America’s lunch while Trump’s trade representative Robert Lighthizer would be in Beijing negotiating for more market access for American enterprise.
This challenge is even more profound in the Biden administration, which has taken a more conciliatory approach toward China and has even considered a tariff reduction to address high inflation levels.
If the last 20 years are any indication, most large American corporations, consulting firms, and politicians cannot be relied upon to take on what could be the most pressing challenge of our times.
To be clear, I am not advocating for conflict with China, or for the U.S. to intervene if PRC were to act on its threat targeted toward Taiwan. As a matter of fact, I am advocating for the opposite: America should use restraint and avoid direct conflict. If the America-China relationship were a marital relationship, I am suggesting a divorce.
Bill Clinton brought China into the WTO fold and kickstarted its phenomenal rise. Almost all presidents since have helped China achieve its hegemonic status in global trade. America is no longer the world’s largest trading nation, and it does not control the supply chains of any 21st century industry—electronics, electric vehicles, semiconductors, renewable energy goods, or the critical minerals that feed into each of those industries. America is trailing behind China.
One could argue that competition with China is irrelevant and we should focus on issues at home such as infrastructure, crime, the opioid epidemic, and race and gender ideology. But aren’t they all connected? The hollowing-out of American manufacturing from towns such as Binghamton, New York and Wooster, Ohio have, at the very least, contributed to the crime rate and the use of opioids.
America used to produce cutting-edge research and had the highest number of peer-reviewed articles published on advanced technology and scientific research. But today, China publishes the most on A.I., and houses many of the leading genomic-research centers of the world. Americans pursue feminist theory and ethnic studies, with the only guaranteed career path of activism and public office. Some school districts have even gone onto characterize the subject of mathematics as racist.
The China challenge cannot be addressed by establishment politicians who prescribe more neoliberalism, or by certain populist or anti-interventionist forces who selectively avoid conversations on China’s nefarious trade practices. It must be addressed by those who are not bogged down by the views of mainstream liberals or conservatives and unperturbed by compromised critiques. It must come from media sources seeking to address the concerns of the average Joe.
Given the nature and scale of the challenge, America cannot pull it off all by itself. To that end, it needs to form an alliance. That alliance can’t be like NATO or other alliances in Asia in which the partnership comes at a steep price to the American taxpayer. An alliance should be forged on equal terms according to which both parties gain. Unlike America’s partnerships with states such as Afghanistan, Ukraine, and Taiwan where their leaders wine and dine American senators and representatives in order to return home with fat checks, these partnerships have to be mutually beneficial.
We also must discuss supply chains. I am not advocating for the reshoring of all supply chains, which would lead to “imported inflation” and economic disaster. One cannot undo the actions of Walmart, Target, or other global corporations from the last 20 years. Nevertheless, the situation can be prevented from further deterioration.
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The major pitfall of populist economic policy has been the lack of vision and planning. For instance, a couple of years ago, there was a huge outcry when people found out their Oreos and other Nabisco products were manufactured in Mexico.
American nationalists are focused on Chips Ahoy when the chips that go into fighter jets, mobile phones, laptops, and automobiles are manufactured abroad—worse, they are being manufactured either by adversarial states or high-risk states, such as Taiwan. America does not have the lithium, cobalt, or graphite required to manufacture a smartphone, a solar panel, or a battery for an electric vehicle. Unfortunately, those supply chains are controlled by Chinese companies and China’s state-owned enterprises.
In order to change this state of affairs, the U.S. should partner with nations facing the same challenges. Washington should redesign the trade architecture and supply chains in the Indo-Pacific region with the help of populist-led nations and others who will not pose a similar challenge to the one China poses today. Over the course of the next six months, through a series of articles on several bilateral partnerships, Pacific Forum will unpack the opportunities and challenges in addressing the challenge of our times.