LONDON (AP) – It’s not just the economy. While fears of inflation and recession weigh heavily on voters’ minds, another issue is cropping up 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 Sunak, faced off in a televised debate last month over who would be tougher on China.
It is a marked departure from outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s “Sinophil” business-focused approach and part of a hardening of anti-China rhetoric in many Western countries and other democracies, such as Japan, which is going out to 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 toward the latter, as evidenced by the opposition of the United States, Europe, Japan and Australia to threatening Chinese military exercises that followed the visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in Taiwan last week, and growing warnings from Western intelligence agencies about spying and interference by Beijing. .
A delegation of US lawmakers arrived in Taiwan on Sunday to discuss easing tensions in the Taiwan Strait and investments in semiconductors, among other issues.
This 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 at home, as well as posing a threat to the security of their neighbors and the world at large.
China was targeting Australia’s May election in which the Conservatives, who ultimately lost, tried to paint the opposition as unwilling to stand up to Beijing.
America’s growing challenger on the world stage is also expected to feature in US congressional races this fall, particularly in industrial Midwestern states, long after former President Donald Trump took a tough stance anti-China
Many in Europe are also rebalancing their focus on China, although this did not play a significant role in elections in France this year and Germany in 2021.
Andreas Fulda, a political scientist at the University of Nottingham who specializes in China, said British politicians were “clearer about China” than their European neighbours.
“The UK has been paying a lot of attention to what’s happening in Australia and in many ways the debate here is way ahead of mainland Europe,” he said.
Truss, Britain’s foreign secretary and front-runner in the Conservative Party leadership race, has spoken of expanding what she calls a “freedom network” so that democracies can counter China and Russia more effectively. She says she will crack down on Chinese tech companies, such as the owner of short video platform TikTok.
In her role as Britain’s top diplomat, Truss has sharply criticized China’s military moves following Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, accusing Beijing of an “aggressive and sweeping escalation” that “threatens peace and stability in the region”.
Sunak, the former head of the British Treasury, has pledged to close the partly Chinese-funded Confucius Institutes, which promote Chinese culture and language in UK universities, lead an international alliance against Chinese cyber threats and they help British companies and universities combat Chinese espionage.
“I had a sense of déjà vu having 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. “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 trade and commercial ties five years ago to seeing China “through the prism of a threat to national security and economic competitiveness”.
In Australia’s election, conservatives broke with a tradition of bipartisanship on critical national security issues to accuse the center-left Labor Party of being likely to appease Beijing.
The gambit fell short. Labour, 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 just Australia is asking for,” Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said, adding that the entire region was concerned.
A Lowy Institute poll released in June found Australians were increasingly worried about their country’s biggest 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, up 30 percentage points from 2018.
A Pew Research Center survey the same month negative views of China were found to be 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 to cement deals to give the UK a huge amount of investment and greater access to China to European markets.
Johnson, who took power in 2019, always stressed he was not a “knee-jerk Sinophobe”, but under pressure from the US, his government excluded Chinese companies from the UK’s 5G communications network. Britain has also taken in thousands of people from Hong Kong as Beijing clamps down on 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 posed by the growing assertiveness of Beijing
“It feels like a very important moment, after 9/11,” Moore said.
The US is also moving intelligence resources to China.
However, China experts say much of the rhetoric from Western politicians is just political vision.
Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, said neither of the two candidates who want to be Britain’s next prime minister has articulated a coherent policy on China . The winner will be announced on September 5 following a Conservative Party vote.
“The indications are that (Sunak’s) words about China policy are not based on any kind of strategy,” Tsang said. “Nor has Truss articulated a proper China strategy, 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 propagandizing the so-called ‘China threat’, cannot solve its own problems,” the Foreign Office spokesman said. Zhao Lijian after the Sunak-Truss debate.
In the United States, both major political parties have criticized China during the campaign, particularly in the Midwest, where Chinese imports are blamed for the loss of manufacturing jobs.
Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz ran thousands of TV ads this spring that mentioned 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 US voters. But political strategists believe China is likely to remain a potent political issue in November’s US congressional elections 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 Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and heightened tensions over Taiwan.
In South Korea’s presidential vote in March, the candidates disagreed on how to handle the intensifying 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 with Pelosi when he came to South Korea from Taiwan, although he did speak with her by phone, and his government has refrained from criticizing Chinese military moves on 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.