Sinophobia: Otherization and Orientalism

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Issue 8, Volume 111

By Matthew Qiu 

From the Yellow Peril to the model minority, the position of the Asian body within the American consciousness has shifted across generations. However, one variable has remained consistent in the United States’s relationship with the perceived non-Western world: a neo-colonial undercurrent has been pervasive in U.S. foreign policy toward Asia and more specifically, China.

Sinophobia exhibits itself at both the macro and micro levels of American politics. The anti-Asian violence witnessed during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and politicians’ use of phrases such as “Chinese virus” has been manifestations of Orientalist rhetoric during this crisis. More broadly, however, Orientalist thought has underpinned the United States’s rationalization of its approach to foreign policy with China. Hegemonic discourse essentializes non-Western countries into a single monolith of the Orient. Such discussion about the non-Western world reproduces normative epistemologies that calcify imperialist conceptions of the Global South. This Orientalist discourse constructs a sliding scale that places Western actors at an apex from which they can objectify the Orient and place it in opposition with the West as a method of self-affirmation for Occidental—that is, Western—superiority. The implication of this discursive constant is the endless reproduction of threats from the Orient through images and perceptions that place non-Western peoples and groups under a process of otherization, reinforcing the binary between a rational Occident in negation to an irrational Orient.

The effects of this discourse on Chinese representations in Western international relations theory is clear: proponents of this Euro-Americocentric model have placed the United States in direct opposition to China. They are diametrically opposed within geopolitical models. Peaceful coexistence is supposedly a fantasy, despite the increasing inevitability of an international community under a system of multipolarity. They are apparently primordial enemies, locked in an endless conflict over the East Asia region.

Realism, as one of the dominant schools of thought in international relations theory, has dominated the decision-making behind the United States’ approach to foreign policy. It posits that states and sovereign entities are locked in a reciprocal regulation of one another’s actions. It asserts that all states pursue self-interest, condemning international politics to a zero-sum game. This Machiavellian point of view is often purported by realists as an inevitable result of human nature. Detractors are crushed as examples of naïveté, but realism in and of itself develops out of a frame of reference entirely seeped in Western conceptions of sovereign politics. Orientalism formulates itself through these very discursive interactions that echo through academia.

The way the United States has conceptualized China has been a project of the Western self-imagination in which others can only be constructed in relation to the Euro-American framework. The West imposes characteristics and meaning upon the Orient, always ensuring it can identify itself in negation to the other. Demonization, or an extremely harsh portrayal, of China is rooted in this analysis, as China’s power is seen as a failure on the West’s part to restrain the Orient. It can only be perceived in the Western gaze as a shattering of the weak-willed caricature imposed upon it. China’s refusal to adhere to this stereotype serves as the primary driving force behind the reining in of China by the United States.

One can take a look at the paternalistic role that the United States has taken on when forming its relations with East Asian allies. Many argue that the loyalty of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan to the United States is a necessary exchange for the U.S. nuclear umbrella. With that being said, one can still see a master-subaltern relationship emerge between these individual relations, especially when we examine the United States’s declawing of Japan’s military and ensuring it only acts bilaterally with U.S. direction. These relationships impose a sort of mimicry onto these nations, causing them to internalize Western rhetoric and embody cultural representations that reflect themselves within the image of the West. These bastions in East Asia become the boundaries of the postcolonial U.S. metropole, establishing themselves as anchoring points around China’s influence on the region. Their protection is guaranteed only insofar as they remain sentries for the United States to have a foot through the door next to China.

This threat construction is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The invocation of the Yellow Peril in modern international relations justified through frameworks of realism attempts to cultivate a hegemonic discourse on China from a Western gaze. The nexus of Western knowledge production about the East has consecrated Orientalism in international relations discussion, propping up a caricature of China as a diametrically opposed entity in the reflection of the Occident.