Motives behind foreign phobia reflect multiple reasons

Protectionism and nationalism amid globalisation

According to an Irish legend, when life draws to a close, you hear the doomsday clock that bears your name ticking the time away… tick-tick-tick-tick. Across the pond in the US, popular Chinese video-sharing app TikTok hears the ominous ticking clock. The US siege of TikTok is about data security. It is also about global dominance, protectionism and the comeback of an age-old mantra: “Foreign Phobia”. The line now blurs between western capitalists and eastern socialists.

As is typical in complex human affairs, the motives behind foreign phobia reflect multiple reasons. Foreign bashing—migrants or companies—resurrects in election cycles. Low hanging juicy votes can be won with promises to protect local jobs. Retaining control of national industries is part of war strategy. De-globalisation is a tool to isolate, undercut, puncture and punish rising rivals, tripping them before they trip you.

With bipartisan support, US lawmakers passed a bill that would ban TikTok unless its Chinese owner sells the app. US officials say Beijing could spy, sow discord and spread propaganda through TikTok to its 170 million American users. To protect national security, US regulators have long restricted foreign-ownership of American media companies. To circumvent this restriction, the wily Rupert Murdoch became a US citizen in 1985. But new laws are needed to regulate Big Tech.

Illustration: Job P.K. Illustration: Job P.K.

The day after lawmakers passed the TikTok bill, President Joe Biden opposed Nippon Steel’s proposed $14.9bn takeover of US Steel. Biden did not cite national security—after all, Japan is a staunch US ally. It was to protect the American industrial base by safeguarding “strong American steel companies powered by American steel workers,” he said. US Steel is headquartered in Pennsylvania, a critical swing state in the upcoming presidential elections. Donald Trump has promised to block the takeover, leaving no room for Biden to manoeuvre, even if he wanted to. Biden’s “Buy American” slogan mirrors Trump’s “America First.”

In the UK, PM Rishi Sunak plans to introduce a law to prevent foreigners from buying British news organisations. This aims to block the Abu-Dhabi backed takeover of the British conservative newspaper, The Telegraph. Tory MPs and backbenchers are in the forefront of this oftentimes xenophobic uproar. The battle queen is Kemi Badenoch, 44, the business secretary, who hopes to succeed Sunak as Tory leader—The Telegraph plays a crucial role in Tory leadership races.

Shipbuilding is the next arena of US-China superpower rivalry, potentially igniting trade conflicts that impact China’s naval and commercial shipping might. China deftly filled the vacuum left by a retreating US. Ranked number one in 1975, the US shipbuilding industry annually produced over 70 commercial ships. Now it produces 10 compared with China’s 1,000 ocean-faring vessels. This deficit has major security implications—over 90 per cent of military equipment, supplies and fuel travel on foreign, including Chinese, commercial cargo ships. These are manufactured with government subsidies. Experts attribute the decimation of US shipbuilding to Ronald Reagan’s free-marketeer decisions to axe subsidies. Ironically, free-marketeers are security hawks.

Today, trade bodies clamour for the return of subsidies, protectionism and nationalism in the US shipbuilding industry. Globalisation shifts with the winds of change. One aphorism does not. “Whoever rules the waves, rules the world,” proclaimed Alfred Thayer Mahan, the respected 19th century naval historian and strategist. Today, that truth expands from sea waves to include air waves. America’s noose on TikTok tightens. The Irish legend concludes with the listener hearing the clock ticking to the end “tick-tick-tick-ti…”

Pratap is an author and journalist.