Asa Hutchinson, the Republican governor of Arkansas, a southern state that is very much pro-Donald Trump – nearly 63 per cent of its residents just voted for him – knows what he wants from China: more students and more trade.
“Whoever is elected, I would hope that one of the first things on their agenda is to try to re-engage at least in conversations with China’s leadership,” Hutchinson said last month during an online panel hosted by the Washington think tank Brookings Institution.
If those feelings come as a surprise, given his location and affiliation, it may be because another politician from the same state and the same party – the freshly re-elected Senator Tom Cotton – essentially seeks the opposite, writing bills in Congress this year to ban some Chinese students from the US and to cut off America’s trade with Beijing.
In the Xi Jinping era, congressional Democrats and Republicans have found themselves in unusually close alignment in their views of China. Frayed by Trump’s trade war, the US-China relationship continues to unravel – tensions are soaring over what Washington calls Beijing’s human rights abuses, the imposition of a national security law in Hong Kong and the coronavirus pandemic.
In Washington, at least, there is little debate: China is up to no good.
Even after last week’s elections, that assessment is unlikely to change when the Biden administration begins January 20, experts said. Nor does it matter whether Democrats take control of the Senate, which probably won’t be resolved until two run-off races in Georgia in early January.
“Bills related to Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan have passed both houses with almost unanimous support,” noted Anna Ashton, the senior director of government affairs at the US-China Business Council. “It is hard to imagine that this trend will change significantly in the next Congress, regardless of which party ends up controlling the Senate.”
Instead, experts say that the divide between Hutchinson and Cotton, the two Arkansas Republicans, represents a different China-related dispute that has received far less attention.
The real debate, they say, is between the federal government, which is focused on national security, and the individual states, which don‘t want to see their exports decline or lose out on tuition from their Chinese students.
It has led to an extra layer of tension between the US and China, too.
President Xi has said Chinese firms rattled by the worsening US-China relationship should “undertake cooperation proactively” with state governments directly.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has warned states and their governors to just say no to such Chinese outreach and told Chinese diplomats they must seek federal permission to meet with local officials in the US.
“General Secretary Xi thinks you’re the weak link,” Pompeo told Wisconsin legislators in September.
It is unclear how much sway Pompeo or Xi has over any individual state in America.
The US system of federalism gives states a high level of autonomy to make their own laws – as long as they fall within the boundaries put in place by Congress and the president.
Experts say that a governor’s job is thus not to think about national security, but jobs and the economy in his or her state.
Adam Lysenko, an associate director at Rhodium Group who studies Chinese investments in the US, called it an “inherent tension” between the two levels of government.
Congress receives intelligence briefings. When lawmakers talk about trade these days, they might also discuss human rights. When they talk about American universities, they might also discuss espionage.
Lysenko said that federal officials might be able to get away with supporting policies that hurt their own states’ economies in a way that governors cannot – for example, a trade war.
Ashton, of the US-China Business Council, noted that state governments are responsible for their own economies. “They have to attract and create jobs, and look after the businesses in their states.”
“And China is an important piece of that puzzle for most states,” she said.
Sheena Chestnut Greitens, an associate professor at the University of Texas’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, noted that “for a long time, the economic side of the US-China relationship was the more cooperative side, compared to security issues”.
Now, though, she added: “There has been enough warning rhetoric about Chinese influence, espionage and other issues from the administration and federal law enforcement that local actors may have internalised some real wariness of China, and may perceive cooperation to be more risky – especially if they are aware that their own in-house expertise on China is limited.”
Just east of Arkansas, in Tennessee, Bob Rolfe oversees his state’s efforts to recruit companies from overseas.
In an interview, Rolfe, the commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, spoke proudly about Tennessee’s electric vehicle industry, and said he was hopeful that a couple of “really good” Chinese auto parts manufacturers would set up plants in his state.
“We don’t want to be left behind,” Rolfe said.
“When it comes to the electric vehicle … a number of those parts continue to be sourced in China, and across the Asian rim,” he said.
“And so we are aggressive about doing everything we can to make sure that Tennessee is in the conversation when it comes to being the leader of the electric vehicle assembly revolution in the southeast.”
In September, attendees at a trade fair in Beijing also saw a pre-recorded video message from Tennessee’s Republican governor, Bill Lee, making a pitch for foreign businesses to come to his state.
In Washington, though, another Tennessee Republican tells a different story about China.
“It is time the United States unravel our relationship from Communist China,” Senator Marsha Blackburn, one of Tennessee’s two Republican senators, tweeted late last month, one of many remarks attacking Beijing she has posted on Twitter.
Blackburn, like Cotton, speaks of China not as an opportunity for her state, but as a potential threat to it.
She has an entire page on her official Senate website devoted to how she has been “taking on China since day one”. She wrote legislation that would let people to sue China for damages from Covid-19, and is the co-lead with Cotton on his bill to prohibit Chinese science majors from studying in the US.
Hutchinson and Rolfe both acknowledged the broader issues at play in the US-China relationship.
In Arkansas, Hutchinson said that human rights is a “big part” of the discussion about China. He said, for example, that there is “great concern” with how China handled the protests in Hong Kong.
“Our values have to be a part of that conversation,” Hutchinson said.
In 2019, Arkansas‘s exports to China amounted to $522 million – slightly more than one-third of the state’s exports to China in 2012, according to the US-China Business Council, which tracks trade between the two countries.
“I love saying that Arkansas produces 50 per cent of all the rice made in the United States of America, and so obviously that market for rice and poultry was critical to us,” he said.
“And then everything changed. It changed because of a national dialogue, it changed because of mistakes that China made, it changed because of the trade war, and all of a sudden, those investments are at risk.”
Tennessee’s Rolfe tried to play down the larger issues entirely: “With respect to some of those geopolitical conversations going on, we really try to stay away. That’s not a part of our mission here.”
Instead, he added, state officials “focus on the company, not the countries”.
He said that his state does its own “independent due diligence” about every company considering Tennessee.
Hutchinson contended that to prevent the “chill” in US-China relations from turning into a full-blown freeze, it would take national leadership – “and bipartisanship can follow that”.
To be sure, not all states agree. Mississippi, which borders both Arkansas and Tennessee, is trying to sue China for damages related to the coronavirus.
“I’ll never be sorry for assuming the worst about a government that works against the USA and commits ethnic cleansing,” Tate Reeves, the state‘s Republican governor, tweeted in September.
Before the election, Lysenko, the Rhodium Group analyst, cautioned that no matter who won, even if the US-China relationship thaws, it will not necessarily revert to singing “‘Kumbaya’ around the campfire”.
“It’s naive to imagine that we were even ever there, at that level of harmony, and also even more naive to think that we could go back to it,” Lysenko said.
“The whole zeitgeist in the United States has shifted,” he added. “And this is a bipartisan thing.”