On October 13AmCham China and the US-China Education Trust (USCET) co-hosted a webinar entitled “America’s New Normal? Populist Nationalism and Polarization in the US” as part of their “Presidential Election Series.” This series is designed to explore different elements of the US-China relationship in the context of the upcoming US presidential election. This was the third webinar in the series and featured an all-star cast of panelists: Ambassador Julia Chang Bloch, President at USCET, Robert Kapp, President of Robert A. Kapp & Associates, Thomas Carothers, Senior Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Evan Feigenbaum, Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and William Zarat, Senior Counselor at the Cohen Group.

As the title suggests, the webinar focused on the rise of political polarization and nationalism in the US. The US has experienced prior periods of polarization in its history, notably during the American Civil War and in the aftermath of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Polarization has been on the rise in the US over the past few decades, driven by rising polarization among traditional media platforms and also the rise of social media, which has enabled ideas to spread much more rapidly and widely than was previously possible. Panelists also noted that President Trump’s actions and governing style have accelerated the level of polarization in the US over the course of his administration.

Just as polarization by definition divides the body politic and reduces the prospect of political compromise, nationalism by contrast can unite politics around common interests and is often necessary to create and sustain a national identity. However, excessive nationalism can also create an “us” versus “them” mentality that fosters aggression and tension, both at home and abroad. Excessive nationalism is driven by insecurity, and the US at this moment is insecure because of a combination of domestic and international dynamics. At home, immigration over the past 20 years have made certain segments of the population uneasy about their socioeconomic security. Abroad, the US economy suffered significantly during and after the global financial crisis and the economic recovery has been uneven, fostering insecurity about America’s economic position in the world. Together, the rising forces of polarization and nationalism in the US are a dangerous mix.

These forces, in particular rising nationalism, are impacting the US-China relationship. Panelists discussed three types of nationalism that are affecting US relations with China: security nationalism, techno-nationalism, and extra-territorial nationalism. Security nationalism has always been present in the US-China relationship, driven by differences and opposing priorities in the national security considerations of both the US and China. Over the past few years, security considerations have moved to the forefront of US policy considerations with respect to China, driven by rising geopolitical tensions in a number of areas and often at the cost of bilateral economic cooperation. These security considerations have given way to “techno-nationalism” with respect to emerging technologies of the future. Under this posture, both the US and China have identified key technologies of the future and believe their countries must lead in the development of these key technologies to ensure their own security. This posture is leading to the third type of nationalism, extra-territorial nationalism, wherein the US is applying extra-territorial means to pressure companies outside the US to act in ways aligned with US national interest and security concerns.

So, what do these trends portend for the future of the US-China relationship? A period of both competition and confrontation. Panelists suggested that the most optimistic outcome for the US-China relationship following the election would be one that emphasizes “cooperation” and mitigates “confrontation.” In this scenario, both sides will work to erect clear, narrowly-defined barriers around national security issues while taking steps to encourage competition on economic and commercial issues in ways that are fair, level, and reciprocal. The business community will have an important role to play as an anchor in the economic relationship, and attention should be paid by both governments to creating a level playing field for foreign business in China. Moreover, panelists expressed hope that both sides will expand communication and dialogue to establish bilateral cooperation to address transnational issues like climate change, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and pandemics. Nevertheless, it is likely that businesses that are involved in the design, production, or manufacturing of key technologies or components for both the US and China will have to navigate an increasingly uncertain bilateral economic and commercial environment over the medium term.