On Thursday, the Biden administration signed an executive order to further block U.S. companies from engaging in investments that may support China’s defense sector. The move emphasizes that taking a tough stance on China is a rare area of foreign policy where Republicans and Democrats increasingly agree.
Many commentators and policymakers seem hopeful that an intensifying rivalry with China will have positive consequences for American politics. A 2019 New York Times op-ed, for instance, notes that a rising China will prompt Americans to “come together.” A February op-ed in the Financial Times argues that “America’s best hope of retaining some cohesion in the coming decades is a mighty China.”
But not everyone agrees. A recent analysis discusses how amplifying the China threat could backfire for the Biden administration. And my research shows that the assumption that a U.S.-China rivalry will have a unifying effect and reduce domestic partisan polarization may be faulty to begin with.
Responses to threat tend to reflect existing trends
The argument that external threats create partisan unity at home has a long history in political science. The concept is rooted in theories about how conflict creates cohesion. When groups of people are threatened, they bind together in opposition to an enemy “other.”
This idea is prominent in American grand strategy. One account, for instance, describes how identifying a foreign adversary allows U.S. leaders to “wonderfully concentrate the national mind upon a visible foreign threat.”
Why, exactly? There are two main explanations for how external threats decrease polarization in the United States. The first is that when serious threats arise, policymakers realize the gravity of the situation. They set aside partisan politics and defer to presidential leadership, reducing polarization in American foreign policymaking.
Another explanation is that external threats create a “rally around the flag effect.” This effect heightens national identity and minimizes the importance of partisan identity, reducing polarization among the American public.
But there are at least three reasons to be skeptical of these claims.
The first reason comes from the historical record. In my research, I traced U.S. domestic responses to 71 security crises that foreign countries triggered, beginning in the early 20th century. Using a variety of research methods, I found little evidence that security threats consistently reduced polarization either among policymakers or the public.
Instead, responses to new threats reflected existing partisan dynamics. In other words, in a domestic environment that’s already polarized, new security threats are likely to be absorbed into the partisan divide.
Negative partisanship may affect the U.S.-China relationship
Second, the rise in negative partisanship — the tendency to strongly dislike the opposite party — gives political leaders of the opposing party clear electoral incentives to voice strong opposition to the president. Political scientist Frances Lee, for example, shows that congressional leaders are more likely to politicize issues that a president of the opposite party has championed.
This means that Republicans will have more incentives to criticize how the Biden administration responds to Beijing as the threat from China intensifies.
According to a recent report from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a majority of Republicans and Democrats view China as a threat to the United States. But the report also found major partisan differences on how political leaders and the public think the United States should respond to that threat.
And there are no guarantees that as the stakes of the debate increase, these attitudes will converge. In fact, as political leaders take increasingly strong stances, negative partisanship might drive the parties further apart. This could be especially likely if U.S.-China relations become a primary focus of the next presidential election cycle.
Americans may distrust how the “other” party handles China
A third point is that polarization makes Americans distrust politicians of the opposing party and increases skepticism of the other party’s leadership in a crisis.
A survey I conducted in June 2019 during the Trump administration about attitudes toward China illustrates this dynamic. Lucid, a professional survey firm, fielded the survey online to a nationally representative sample of 2,500 American adults, based on target demographic quotas for age, sex, ethnicity, race and region.
Survey respondents read about threatening actions taken by China described in the Worldwide Threat Assessment, an annual report from the U.S. intelligence community. Half of the respondents were told that the information came from a group of nonpartisan experts, while the other half were told it came from the Trump administration.
After reading the report, Republicans and Democrats in the group who thought the statements came from nonpartisan experts had similar threat perceptions of China. But among the group who thought the report was from the Trump administration, attitudes were further polarized.
Within this group, Republicans became much more likely to view China as a threat to the United States, but Democrats were skeptical of the report’s findings. These results emphasize how easily information about a security threat can become politicized in a polarized environment.
Bipartisan cooperation on China is possible, but is not guaranteed
My research doesn’t suggest that foreign threats will never reduce polarization. It just emphasizes that we should not expect threats to do so automatically — and we should not be surprised when they don’t.
It could be the case, for example, that a very severe crisis involving China creates some national unity. But the more likely outcome is that the U.S.-China rivalry will gradually intensify. As the salience of the relationship increases, it will be difficult to insulate from partisan politics.
This is not to say that there won’t be opportunities for Republican and Democratic policymakers to collaborate along the way. One area for bipartisan cooperation, for example, is investing in new technology to compete with China’s.
But politicians will need more than bipartisan legislation to address the deeper partisan divisions in the United States. And for that, Americans are better off fixing their internal politics than searching for external enemies.
Rachel Myrick (@rmmyrick91) is an assistant research professor of political science at Duke University and a PhD candidate in political science at Stanford University.