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US-China relations are in flux, but don’t call it ‘decoupling’

Anyone who follows the American discourse on U.S.-China relations knows that “ decoupling ” is now the metaphor of choice for characterizing the disintegrative process that is seemingly underway between the United States and China. This is a major problem. But let me be clear: I’m not referring to the process — but to the use and ubiquity of the metaphor. Still, before examining why the metaphor is such a problem, it is worth briefly looking at the process. Sure, the United States is purposefully weakening, and even breaking, some of the more direct interdependencies that connect it to China. U.S. firms are reshoring jobs from China at an extraordinary pace. However, many other direct interdependencies will endure. China is still the largest export market for U.S. agricultural goods and that is projected to remain the case . But, whatever the fluctuations of these and other more direct connections, it’s important to understand that they constitute only a small portion of the interdependencies that bind the two countries. The United States and China are inextricably entangled in an immense and complex web of less direct, but no less strong, interdependencies . These interdependencies are a function of the explosive growth in both physical (transportation) and virtual (information) networks during the past 30 years, and they render it all but impossible for either country to truly disconnect or sever ties to the other. Which brings me back to why the decoupling metaphor is so problematic. Namely, it is an explicitly mechanical term that implicitly encourages the United States to think in mechanistic ways that directly contravene the organic reality described above. In the broadest sense, the term promotes the fiction that the United States can think about China in highly discrete terms. More specifically, the term feeds two false and dangerous notions with potentially vast policy implications. First, that the United States can somehow effectively isolate, and perhaps by extension even contain , China. And second, that the United States can manipulate, shape or influence China with great precision and minimal concern for second- or third-order effects and unintended consequences . Now, there are many people who will dismiss these concerns by saying that I’m vastly overstating the power of what is “just” a figure of speech. They’ll say they know that decoupling is not really possible, and they’ll qualify it with terms like “partial” or “limited.” Ultimately, however, they will insist — if only by their continued use of the term — that a mere word, and a metaphor at that, cannot possibly twist the United States’s understanding of reality and policy choices so profoundly. And they’ll be mistaken — because of something called the “ framing effect .” Cognitive, linguistic and psychological research shows how metaphors “frame” and thus powerfully shape perception of the issues they are used to characterize. So, with a bad metaphor — such as decoupling — and hence a bad frame, the United States inclines itself to misperceive the framed issue and how best to address it. In short, the metaphor matters . Good examples of bad metaphors/frames directly contributing to dubious policy choices include both the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror,” which clearly promoted policy measures that were simplistic and overly militarized. Similarly, the adoption of “Cold War” framing (“Cold War 2.0,” “new cold war,” etc.) to characterize the emerging competition with China may well lead to analogously simplistic and excessively militarized policy responses, even though China is a much more multidimensional and networked challenge than the Soviet Union ever was. Speaking of multidimensional challenges, the above-mentioned web of global complexity generates and amplifies them in spades. Think about the ever-growing list of emergent phenomena — climate change, migration, globalization, economic contagion, infosphere contamination, pandemics, and the like — that increasingly dominate the spectrum of national security challenges. None of these is a distinct, top-down, mechanistic development derived from a localized decision/action taken in, say, Beijing or Washington, or anywhere else for that matter. To the contrary, they are unbounded, largely bottom-up, and highly organic phenomena. And just as these emergent phenomena are not solely, or even mainly, driven by a localized decision/action, they cannot be effectively dealt with via a localized decision/action. Instead, they require “big-picture” perspectives that are conducive to coordinated, comprehensive and increasingly multinational, if not global, policy approaches. Thus, the United States must resist the reductionist urge to think about China as a discrete issue or series of discrete issues that slot neatly into traditionally distinct […]

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Daisie Hobson

Daisie Hobson is a Director at the Reshoring Institute and an engineer with many years of experience in manufacturing and project management.

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