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OPINION

What the Trump administration risks by using China as its bogeyman

The challenge of the 21st century is going to be keeping the competition between China and the United States from spilling over into war.

President Xi Jinping of China and US President Donald Trump.
President Xi Jinping of China and US President Donald Trump.IORI SAGISAWA/AFP via Getty Images

It is sinister to have an American administration once again pressuring the intelligence services to reach a conclusion that the president wants. It’s called “conclusion shopping” in the trade, when instead of sifting through the evidence to reach a conclusion, you come to a conclusion first and then bend the evidence to fit. Vice President Dick Cheney did a lot of conclusion shopping in the George W. Bush administration when he leaned on the CIA to come up with evidence that Iraq was making weapons of mass distraction. That led to the Iraq war — the worst foreign policy decision in any American’s lifetime. Now the Trump administration is going down the same path to pressure a finding that the coronavirus began in a Wuhan laboratory, and not in an animal market where it jumped from animals to humans.

Whatever the final finding concerning the coronavirus’ origins, market or laboratory, conclusion shopping to bash China in order to distract from the mistakes of Trump administration is in full swing. From Republican lawmakers, Republican strategists, and from the fever swamps of Fox News, the word is out: Blame China and blame Joe Biden for being soft on Communism. Republican strategist Chis La Civita, was quoted as saying "Trump has always been successful when he has had a bogeyman, and China is the perfect bogeyman.”

It is disheartening that the Democrats seem to be taking the bait and doing some China bashing themselves. A presidential campaign that degenerates into who can denounce China in the strongest terms will be unedifying to say the least, and dangerously provocative.

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This is dangerous stuff. Relations with China have seldom been more strained and to whip up more hostility toward China for domestic political advantage is to court disaster.

Not that China hasn’t a lot to answer for. China has suggested that the virus came from an American army laboratory, and in Xi Jingping’s dictatorship China, too, is whipping up resentment of the United States to distract from China’s mistakes and coverups in the early days of the coronavirus.

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But as Harvard’s Graham Allison has written in his groundbreaking book, “Destined for War,” the challenge of the 21st century is going to be keeping the competition between China and the United States from spilling over into war. Allison calls it “the Thucydides Trap,” after the ancient Greek historian who chronicled the Peloponnesian War. The Thucydides Trap is “the severe structural stress caused when a rising power threatens to upend a ruling one.” In Thucydides time, it was up and coming Athens challenging the established power, Sparta — a rivalry that led to a war that ruined both of them.

The most famous example in modern times is the rivalry between the established power, Great Britain, and its challenger, Germany, a century ago that led to World War I. There were moments before that war when England and Germany might have formed an alliance. But one of the reasons they did not was because Germany needed an bogeyman in order to get money out of the German parliament to build a fleet that could rival Britain’s. And Britain was the perfect bogeyman.

Allison starkly warned that, although war between China and the United States is not inevitable, “If leaders in Bejing and Washington keep on doing what they have done for the past decade, the U.S. and China will almost certainly wind up at war.”

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The relationship between China and the United States is too important and too fragile, and the possibility of war too threatening in the coming decades for either country to use their rivalry as a tool for domestic politics.

H.D.S. Greenway is a former editor of the Globe editorial page.