13.10.2020 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Trump and Racialization of US Relations with China


When the US president recently delivered his UNGA speech, he signified how he has systematically racialized the US foreign policy. This was mainly evident from his choice of words about China and COVID-19, calling the virus, yet again, “China Virus” and presenting the pandemic as a ‘Chinese conspiracy’, demanding a probe into it to hold China accountable. While this contention is already absurd enough, what makes it especially significant is how anti-China racism has become one of the patterns that make up the texture of US body-politic. Importantly enough, the speech was delivered at a time when deaths in the US caused by the virus crossed 200,000 mark, the highest in the world so far. It was obviously important for Trump to shift the blame onto China and decry his own responsibility as the US president.

When Trump blamed China for the virus, he was both reproducing racism and encouraging it at the same time. This is evident from how an increasing number of Americans consider China responsible for the virus (as well as the many problems the US is currently facing). A Pew research survey conducted in July 2020 showed that “73% of U.S. adults say they have an unfavorable view of the country, up 26 percentage points since 2018. Since March alone, negative views of China have increased 7 points, and there is a widespread sense that China mishandled the initial outbreak and subsequent spread of COVID-19.”

The survey also showed that “around one-in-four (26%) also describe China as an enemy of the United States – almost double the share who said this when the question was last asked in 2012.” Accordingly, as compared to 35 per cent in 2019 who thought the US should take a tough stance on economic and political ties with China, the latest survey showed that this number has already jumped to 46 per cent.

This rising ‘negative view’ of China, or anti-China racism, has a particular connection with the Republicans, of which Trump is the biggest symbol. According to the same survey, “in the past four months, negative views toward China among Republicans have increased 11 percentage points. Over the same period of time, unfavorable views among Democrats have increased 6 points, resulting in a 15-point gap between the parties.”

In this context, it is obvious that Trump’s bashing of China, followed by his most recent sanctions on export of semiconductors to China, will only add to the anti-China racism. Trump’s most recent sanctions will prove to his voters that he is being tough on China and that this is the only way China’s rise to global power status can be restricted.

Trump’s blame on China for unleashing “the plague onto the world”, sanctions, and survey reports show that the US state, economy, and politics are all locking up together to form the basis of America’s return to racism.

Importantly enough, the spectrum of racism defining US-China relations goes well beyond the pandemic. In fact, it manifests on a number of issues, including Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang, where the US media claims China has built “concentration camps”, Tibet, where the US claims China has established “occupation”, and Belt and Road Initiative, which the US describes only as a Chinese “debt trap.”

This official rhetoric is then reproduced by corporate funded think tanks, which continue to ponder over ways of effectively dealing with the “China challenge”, and encourage ‘democracies’ to take a stand against ‘authoritarian’ China.

While there is no denying that this is a concerted effort to give the US domestic and foreign politics a massive anti-China spin, it also shows that US-China relations are being pushed to a point of no return. The fact that a huge number of Americans have a racially characterized ‘negative view’ of China means even if Trump loses elections, it will remain a major challenge for the Biden administration to reverse the trend.

Ryan Hass, a China director on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council and currently working for the corporate funded Brookings Institution, recently said that the agenda behind anti-China rhetoric and allowing it to become a part of American body-politic is much broader than meets they eye. The cardinal purpose behind this rhetoric is “to reorient the U.S.-China relationship toward an all-encompassing systemic rivalry that cannot be reversed by the outcome of the upcoming U.S. election,” he said, adding also that “they [the Trump administration] believe this reorientation is needed to put the United States on a competitive footing against its 21st-century geostrategic rival.”

Trump’s active encouragement of anti-China racism is, therefore, no longer just a part of his election strategy; it has very much evolved into a form of racism that is structural and serves multiple purposes at both domestic and international levels, which also means that a return to fully or even partially normalized relations will take a lot more than Trump’s exit from the White House.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.