LONDON (AP) — It’s not just about the economy. While fears of inflation and recession weigh heavily on voters’ minds, another theme is emerging in political campaigns from the UK and Australia to the US and beyond: the “China threat.”
The two finalists vying to become Britain’s next Prime Minister, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunakfaced each other in a televised debate last month about who would be tougher on China.
It is a marked departure from the business-focused “Sinophile” approach of outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and part of the toughening anti-China rhetoric in many Western countries and other democracies, such as Japan, that is emerging in election campaigns.
For years, nations have tried to balance promoting trade and investment with the world’s second-largest economy with concerns about China’s military power projection, espionage and its human rights record.
The pendulum is swinging towards the latter, as evidenced by US, European, Japanese and Australian opposition. to the threatening Chinese military exercises which followed US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last week, and growing warnings from Western intelligence agencies about Beijing’s espionage and interference.
That shift has made China a target for politicians seeking votes, as opinion polls show public sentiment in many democracies turning against China. Some candidates blame China for economic problems in the country, in addition to representing a threat to the security of its neighbors and the rest of the world.
China dominated Australia May elections in which the Conservatives, who ultimately lost, tried to paint the opposition as unwilling to take on Beijing.
America’s growing rival on the world stage is also expected to feature in the US congressional races this fall, particularly in the industrial states of the Midwest, long after former President Donald Trump took a fierce stance against it. China.
Many in Europe are also rebalancing their approach to China, although that does not figure significantly in elections in France this year and in Germany in 2021.
Andreas Fulda, a political scientist at the University of Nottingham who specializes in China, said British politicians “have a clearer view of China” than their European neighbors.
“The UK has paid close attention to what’s going on in Australia and in many ways the debate here is way ahead of continental Europe,” he said.
Truss, the British Foreign Secretary and favorite in the Conservative Party leadership race, she has spoken of expanding what she calls a “freedom web” so that democracies can more effectively counter China and Russia. She says she will crack down on Chinese tech companies, like the owner of TikTok, the short video platform.
In her role as Britain’s top diplomat, Truss has been a harsh critic of China’s military moves. after Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, accusing Beijing of an “aggressive and far-reaching escalation” that “threatens peace and stability in the region.”
Sunak, Britain’s former Treasury chief, has pledged to shut down Confucius Institutes partially funded by China that promote Chinese culture and language in UK universities, lead an international alliance against Chinese cyberthreats and help companies and universities. British to counter Chinese espionage.
“I had a feeling of déjà vu having just moved from Australia,” said Ben Bland, director of the Asia-Pacific program at London think tank Chatham House, who previously worked at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. “There is a similar atmosphere with some politicians trying to deploy the China 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 commercial and trade ties five years ago to seeing China “through the prism of a threat to national security and economic competitiveness.
In the Australian election, the Conservatives broke with the tradition of bipartisanship on critical national security issues to accuse the centre-left Labor Party of appeasing Beijing.
The gambit fell short. Labour, whose victory ended nine years of Conservative rule, He denied that he would change his policy with China and called China’s military exercises in Taiwan “disproportionate and destabilizing.”
“This is not something that Australia alone is asking for,” Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said.adding that the entire region was concerned.
A Lowy Institute survey released in June found that Australians are increasingly concerned about their country’s biggest trading partner. Three-quarters of those surveyed said China was at least somewhat likely to become a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years, an increase of 30 percentage points from 2018.
A Pew Research Center survey the same month found that negative views of China are at or near record 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 received a state visit in 2015 that the UK government hoped would cement deals to give Britain a lot of investment and China greater access to foreign goods. European markets.
Johnson, who came to power in 2019, always emphasized that he was not an “instinctive Sinophobe”, but under pressure from the US, his government barred Chinese companies from the UK’s 5G communications network. Britain has also welcomed thousands of people from Hong Kong as Beijing squeezes 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 that Beijing’s growing assertiveness could pose.
“That feels like a great moment, post-9/11,” Moore said.
The United States is also changing intelligence resources to China.
However, China experts say much of the rhetoric from Western politicians is just political bragging.
Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, said that none of the candidates seeking to be Britain’s next prime minister had articulated a coherent policy on China. The winner will be announced on September 5 after a vote by the Conservative Party.
“The indications are that (Sunak’s) words about China’s policy are not based on any kind of strategy,” Tsang said. “Nor has Trus articulated a proper strategy for China, despite being the current foreign secretary.”
China has rejected the growing hostility.
“I would like to make it clear to certain British politicians that making irresponsible comments about China, including exaggerating the so-called ‘China threat,’ cannot solve one’s own problems,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said after of the Sunak-Truss debate.
In the United States, both major political parties have criticized China during the election campaign, particularly in the Midwest, where Chinese imports are blamed for job losses in the industry.
Republican Pennsylvania Senate candidate Mehmet Oz ran thousands of TV ads this spring mentioning China. In Ohio, Democratic Senate candidate Tim Ryan declared in an ad, “It’s us against China.”
Polls suggest that neither China, nor foreign policy in general, is a top issue for most American voters. But political strategists believe China is likely to remain a potent political issue in the US congressional elections in November, as candidates seek to link China to US economic challenges.
In Asia, it has been more nuanced.
Japanese voters have become more supportive of a stronger military following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and heightened tensions over Taiwan.
In the presidential vote in South Korea in March, the candidates differed on how to handle the growing rivalry between two important 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 advocated a balancing act. But since he took office in May, Yoon has avoided upsetting China, a major export market.
He didn’t know Pelosi. when she arrived in South Korea from Taiwan, although he spoke to her on the phone, and his government has refrained from criticizing Chinese military moves on the autonomous 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.