China Threat Emerges in World Elections08/14 10:08
It's not just the economy. While inflation and recession fears weigh heavily
on the minds of voters, another issue is popping up in political campaigns from
the U.K. and Australia to the U.S. and beyond: the "China threat."
LONDON (AP) -- It's not just the economy. While inflation and recession
fears weigh heavily on the minds of voters, another issue is popping up in
political campaigns from the U.K. and Australia to the U.S. and beyond: the
The two finalists vying to become Britain's next prime minister, Liz Truss
and Rishi Sunak, clashed in a televised debate last month over who would be
toughest on China.
It's a stark departure from outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson's
business-focused "Sinophile" approach and part of a hardening of anti-China
rhetoric in many Western countries and other democracies, like Japan, that is
coming out in election campaigns.
Nations for years have sought to balance promoting trade and investment with
the world's second-largest economy with concerns about China's projection of
military power, espionage and its human rights record.
The pendulum is swinging toward the latter, as evidenced in U.S., European,
Japanese and Australian opposition to the threatening Chinese military drills
that followed U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan last week, and
growing warnings from Western intelligence agencies about Beijing's snooping
That shift has made China a target for vote-seeking politicians as opinion
polls show public sentiment in many democracies turning against China. Some
candidates blame China for economic woes at home in addition to posing a
security threat to its neighbors and the wider world.
China loomed large in Australian's election in May in which the
conservatives, who ultimately lost, tried to paint the opposition as being
unwilling to stand up to Beijing.
America's growing rival on the global stage is also expected to figure in
this fall's U.S. congressional races, particularly in Midwest industrial
states, long after former President Donald Trump embraced a fierce anti-China
Many in Europe are also rebalancing their approach to China, though that did
not figure significantly in elections in France this year and in Germany in
Andreas Fulda, a University of Nottingham political scientist specializing
in China, said British politicians "are more clear-eyed about China" than their
"The U.K. has paid close attention to what's happening in Australia, and in
many ways the debate here is well ahead of mainland Europe," he said.
Truss, the British foreign secretary and the front-runner in the
Conservative Party's leadership race, has spoken of expanding what she calls a
"network of liberty" so democracies can counter China and Russia more
effectively. She says she will crack down on Chinese tech companies such as the
owner of TikTok, the short-video platform.
In her role as Britain's top diplomat, Truss has strongly criticized China's
military moves after Pelosi's Taiwan visit, accusing Beijing of an "aggressive
and wide-ranging escalation" that "threaten(s) peace and stability in the
Sunak, Britain's former Treasury chief, has pledged to shutter the partially
Chinese-funded Confucius Institutes that promote Chinese culture and language
at U.K. universities, lead an international alliance against Chinese
cyberthreats, and help British companies and universities counter Chinese
"I had a sense of dj vu having just moved over from Australia," said Ben
Bland, director of the Asia-Pacific program at London's Chatham House think
tank, who previously worked at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. "There's a similar
atmosphere with some politicians trying to deploy the China threat as a
domestic political tool."
Bland described a dramatic shift in how politicians talk about China in both
the U.K. and Australia, from a focus on trade and business ties five years ago
to viewing China "through the prism of a threat to national security and
In the Australian election, conservatives broke from a bipartisanship
tradition on critical national security issues to accuse the center-left Labor
Party of being likely to appease Beijing.
The gambit came up short. Labor, whose victory ended nine years of
conservative rule, denied it would shift its China policy and has called
China's military drills around Taiwan "disproportionate and destabilizing."
"This is not something that solely Australia is calling for," Australian
Foreign Minister Penny Wong said, adding the entire region was concerned.
A Lowy Institute survey released in June found Australians increasingly
concerned about their nation's largest trading partner. Three-quarters of
respondents said it was at least somewhat likely China would become a military
threat to Australia in the next 20 years, up 30 percentage points since 2018.
A Pew Research Center poll the same month found negative views of China are
at or near historic highs in many of the 19 countries surveyed in North
America, Europe and Asia.
Relations between London and Beijing have soured since President Xi Jinping
was granted a 2015 state visit the U.K. government hoped would cement deals to
give Britain a vast pool of investment and China greater access to European
Johnson, who took power in 2019, always stressed that he was not a
"knee-jerk Sinophobe" -- but under pressure from the U.S., his government
excluded Chinese firms from the U.K.'s 5G communications network. Britain also
has welcomed thousands of people from Hong Kong as Beijing squeezes the
freedoms in the former British colony.
The head of the MI6 intelligence agency, Richard Moore, said last month that
China had overtaken terrorism as its top priority, as British spies try to
understand the threats Beijing's growing assertiveness might pose.
"That feels like a very big moment, post-9/11," Moore said.
The U.S. also is shifting intelligence resources to China.
Yet China experts say much of the rhetoric from Western politicians is just
Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the London University School
of Oriental and African Studies, said neither candidate seeking to be Britain's
next prime minister has articulated a coherent policy on China. The winner to
be announced Sept. 5 after a Conservative Party vote.
"The indications are that (Sunak's) words on China policy are not based on
any kind of a strategy," Tsang said. "Nor has Truss articulated a proper China
strategy, despite being the current foreign secretary."
China has pushed back against the growing hostility.
"I would like to make it clear to certain British politicians that making
irresponsible remarks about China, including hyping the so-called 'China
threat,' cannot solve one's own problems," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao
Lijian said after the Sunak-Truss debate.
In the United States, both major political parties have railed against China
on the campaign trail, particularly in the Midwest, where Chinese imports are
blamed for a loss of manufacturing jobs.
Pennsylvania Republican Senate nominee Mehmet Oz ran thousands of TV ads
this spring that mentioned China. In Ohio, Democratic Senate contender Tim Ryan
declared in one ad: "It's us vs. China."
Polling suggests neither China, nor foreign policy in general, is a
top-of-mind issue for most U.S. voters. But political strategists believe China
is likely to remain a potent political issue in the November U.S. congressional
election, as candidates seek to link China to America's economic challenges.
In Asia, it has been more nuanced.
Japanese voters have become more supportive of a stronger military following
the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the heightening tensions over Taiwan.
In the presidential vote in South Korea in March, the candidates differed on
how to manage the intensifying rivalry between two important partners, China
and the U.S.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who narrowly won, vowed to build a
stronger alliance with the U.S., while his liberal opponent argued for a
balancing act. But since taking office in May, Yoon has avoided upsetting
China, an important export market.
He did not meet Pelosi when she came to South Korea from Taiwan, though he
spoke to her by phone, and his government has refrained from criticizing the
Chinese military moves around the self-governing island.