By Robert Ralston

Abstract: The heightened rhetoric of competition between the United States and China could have negative consequences for Asian Americans, sowing anti-Asian American sentiment among segments of the US public.

There is a growing alarm in the United States about the rise of China and American decline. The Trump Administration made clear that it saw great power competition as the defining feature of its National Security Strategy, and Trump tied anxieties around the rise of China to scapegoating at home. As Adam Serwer argues in The Atlantic, decline and racial scapegoating coincided for Trump: “The slow and uneven recovery from the 2008 financial crisis left widespread economic suffering. Trump responded by heaping blame on religious and ethnic minorities as the cause of America’s decline.” Such rhetoric may, Brenes and Jackson argue, have unintended effects: “every gesture toward ‘outcompeting China’ unintentionally buoys ethnonationalism at home and abroad.” 

Public opinion reflects such anxieties about China among Americans. Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs surveys have shown that Republicans, Independents, and Democrats all see China as a major threat, with China being labelled the number one greatest threat by Republicans to US security. More broadly, anti-China sentiments are increasing throughout developed countries, coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Such a heightened sense of geopolitical threat has incentivized—and produced—anti-Asian American sentiment. Jeung and Lee observe that “periods of heightened geopolitical anxiety have long produced spikes in anti-Asian vitriol.” Moreover, as others have noted extensively, this phenomenon is not new, from the “Yellow Peril” to Japanese internment camps during WWII, from racist attacks against South Asian Americans in the aftermath of 9/11 to today’s Anti-Asian racism in light of growing geopolitical competition and conflictual discourse regarding China and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Interest groups are also jumping on the bandwagon. A fourth iteration of the “Committee on the Present Danger” has emerged, describing itself as “a wholly-independent and non-partisan effort to educate and inform American citizens and policymakers about the existential threats presented from the People’s Republic of China under the misrule of the Chinese Communist Party.” Like other iterations of the CPD, this version is deeply concerned about waning American leverage over an international rival – this time China – and presents racist, anti-Asian, memes on its website

Considering such negative discourses around US and China relations, I explored the relationship between discussions of China’s rise, US decline, and feelings toward Asian-Americans in the United States. This research has recently been published in the peer-reviewed journal Politics, Groups, and Identities. In a survey conducted in 2021, I presented a group of over 1,200 American respondents with one of three vignettes which tell respondents that the United States is in decline vis-à-vis China. I varied the measurements of decline by pointing to economic metrics, military metrics, or metrics related to U.S. prestige. I then asked respondents a series of questions to measure their resentment toward Asian Americans.

The findings of my study are troubling: respondents who are exposed to a prime that describes the United States in decline relative to China are more likely to express anti-Asian American sentiment relative to the control group who did not receive information about American decline and China’s rise. For example, respondents who read about China’s military rise scored four percent higher on an Asian American resentment scale than those who did not read about China’s military threat. 

While these effects are modest, they are statistically significant and suggestive of a relationship between great power threat and broad anti-Asian attitudes in the United States. Importantly my experiment did not prime respondents to think in negative terms about China or Asian Americans more broadly. None of the vignettes on American decline point blame in any direction or against any group. This suggests that even just mentioning decline leads individuals to hold more anti-Asian American sentiment.

From my results, we should expect that more direct, pernicious discourse will only lead to further negative sentiment and hate towards members of the AAPI community. Indeed, academic research shows that racist rhetoric and blaming outgroups increases prejudice among the general public.

Policymakers, academics, and others involved in crafting foreign policy discourse should be careful when framing the challenge that China poses to the United States. Words matter. As the organization People’s Action notes, there are ways to criticize the Chinese government responsibly, including being specific about the target of criticism and not conflating human rights issues with military threats.

Policy also matters. We should pursue strong anti-hate crime legislation that shows a bipartisan commitment to combating Anti-Asian hate. Politicians and the government should engage in outreach and support for organizations dealing with anti-Asian hate. Most broadly, the United States and its leaders should not overhype the China threat and engage in a balanced strategy towards US-China relations.

Robert Ralston is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham, UK. He is also a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. (@RobertJRalston) 

Article or Event Link
Jul 5, 2023
Public Policy


Public Policy

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