LONDON — It’s not just the economy. While fears of inflation and recession weigh heavily on voters’ minds, another problem is emerging in political campaigns from the UK and Australia to the US and beyond: the ‘Chinese threat’.
The two finalists competing for Britain’s next prime minister, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, clashed last month in a televised debate over who would be toughest on China.
It diverges significantly from outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s business-oriented “sinophile” approach and is part of a hardening of anti-Chinese rhetoric in many Western countries and other democracies, such as Japan, that is emerging in election campaigns.
Nations have spent years trying to strike a balance between promoting trade and investment and the world’s second-largest economy, with concerns over China’s projection of military might, espionage and its human rights record.
The pendulum is swinging towards the latter, as evidenced by the opposition of the US, Europe, Japan and Australia to the looming Chinese military exercises following the visit of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week, and mounting warnings from Western intelligence services about Beijing’s snooping and meddling. .
A delegation of US lawmakers arrived in Taiwan on Sunday to discuss, among other things, easing tensions in the Taiwan Strait and investing in semiconductors.
That shift has made China a target for vote-seeking politicians, as polls show public sentiment in many democracies that turn against China. Some candidates blame China for economic woes at home and pose a security risk to its neighbors and the rest of the world.
China loomed large in the Australian election in May, in which the Conservatives, who ultimately lost, tried to portray the opposition as unwilling to stand up to Beijing.
America’s growing rival on the global stage is also expected to play a role in this fall’s US congressional races, particularly in the Midwestern industrialized states, long after former President Donald Trump took a fiercely anti-China stance.
Many in Europe are also rebalancing their approach to China, although that was not significant in the elections in France this year and in Germany in 2021.
Andreas Fulda, a political scientist from the University of Nottingham who specializes in China, said British politicians “have a clearer eye for China” than their European neighbours.
“The UK has been paying close attention to what is happening in Australia, and in many ways the debate here is way ahead of mainland Europe,” he said.
Truss, the British Foreign Secretary and the frontrunner in the Conservative Party leadership race, has spoken of expanding what she calls a “network of freedom” so that democracies can fight China and Russia more effectively. She says she will tackle 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 actions after Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, accusing Beijing of an “aggressive and far-reaching escalation” that “damages peace and stability in the threatens the region”.
Sunak, the former British Treasury chief, has pledged to shut down the partially China-funded Confucius Institutes that promote Chinese culture and language in British universities, lead an international alliance against Chinese cyberthreats and help British companies and universities counteract Chinese cyber threats. espionage.
“I had a feeling of déjà vu when I just moved from Australia,” said Ben Bland, director of the Asia-Pacific program at the Chatham House think tank in London, who previously worked at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. some politicians are trying to use the Chinese threat as a domestic political tool.”
Bland described a dramatic shift in the way politicians talk about China in both the UK and Australia, from a focus on trade and business ties five years ago to looking at China “through the prism of a threat to national security and economic competitiveness”.
In the Australian election, conservatives broke with a bipartisan tradition on critical national security issues to accuse the center-left Labor Party of appeasing Beijing.
The gamble came up short. Labor, whose victory ended nine years of conservative rule, denied it would change its policy on China and called China’s military exercises around Taiwan “disproportionate and destabilizing”.
“This is not something that only Australia is asking for,” Australian Foreign Secretary Penny Wong said, adding that the entire region was concerned.
A Lowy Institute study published in June found that Australians were increasingly concerned about their country’s largest trading partner. Three quarters of respondents said it was at least somewhat likely that China would become a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years, a 30 percentage point increase since 2018.
A Pew Research Center poll in the same month found that negative views on China in many of the 19 countries surveyed in North America, Europe and Asia are at or near historic highs.
Relations between London and Beijing have deteriorated since President Xi Jinping received a 2015 state visit that the British government hoped would conclude deals to give Britain a huge investment pool and China greater access to European markets.
Johnson, who came to power in 2019, always insisted he was not a “knee-shock sinophobic” — but under US pressure, his government banned Chinese companies from the UK’s 5G communications network. Britain has also welcomed thousands of people from Hong Kong as Beijing pressures freedoms in the former British colony.
MI6 intelligence chief Richard Moore said last month that China had overtaken terrorism as a top priority as British spies try to understand what threats Beijing’s growing assertiveness could pose.
“That feels like a really big moment, after 9/11,” Moore said.
The US is also shifting intelligence sources to China.
Still, Chinese experts say much of Western politicians’ rhetoric is simply political grandiosity.
Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the London University School of Oriental and African Studies, said none of the candidates aspiring to become Britain’s next prime minister has formulated a coherent policy toward China. The winner will be announced on September 5 after a Conservative Party vote.
“There is evidence that (Sunak’s) words about China policy are not based on any kind of strategy,” Tsang said. Also, Truss has not formulated a real China strategy, despite being the current foreign minister.
China has withdrawn from growing hostility.
“I want to make it clear to certain British politicians that making irresponsible comments about China, including hypes about the so-called ‘China threat’, cannot solve their own problems,” said Zhao Lijian, spokesman for the Foreign Office after the announcement. Sunak-Truss debate.
In the United States, both major political parties have spoken out against China during the campaign, particularly in the Midwest, where Chinese imports have been blamed for the loss of manufacturing jobs.
Mehmet Oz, a Pennsylvania Republican Senate nominee, ran thousands of TV ads this spring that mentioned China. In Ohio, Democratic Senate contender Tim Ryan stated in one ad, “It’s us vs. China.”
Polls show that neither China nor foreign policy in general is a top priority for most American voters. But political strategists believe China is likely to remain a potent political problem in November’s US congressional elections as candidates attempt to link China to America’s economic challenges.
In Asia it is more nuanced.
Japanese voters have become more supportive of a stronger military after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and rising tensions over Taiwan.
In South Korea’s presidential election in March, candidates disagreed on how to deal with the growing rivalry between two key partners, China and the US.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who narrowly won, vowed to build a stronger alliance with the US, while his liberal opponent argued for a balancing act. But since taking office in May, Yoon has avoided upsetting China, a major export market.
He did not meet Pelosi when she came to South Korea from Taiwan, although he spoke to her by phone, and his government has refrained from criticizing Chinese military movements around the self-governing island.
Associated Press writers Jill Lawless in London, Ken Moritsugu in Beijing, Steve Peoples in New York, Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, South Korea, and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.
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