Washington state’s China Syndrome has nothing in common with the 1979 disaster film involving a nuclear-plant meltdown, although nukes could come into play.

Rather, the growing antipathy between China and the United States, as the Chinese Communist Party holds its 20th National Congress, exposes the many vulnerabilities faced by our state.

Even with the Tiananmen Square massacre of peaceful demonstrators of 1989, China’s opening to the West proved very fruitful for both nations. It culminated in China’s ascendancy to the World Trade Organization in 2001.

Washington was one of the states that most benefited. State merchandise exports to China climbed from $1.6 billion in 1992 to a peak of more than $19 billion in 2015.

In 2021, China was Washington’s largest merchandise export destination, totaling $12.1 billion (No. 2 Canada was $7.7 billion). This despite the Trump administration tariffs and increasing trade tensions.

Lest you think these exports are mostly airliners from Boeing (formerly headquartered in Seattle), the largest category of exports to China was agricultural. Still, China is Boeing’s largest overseas customer. Meanwhile, the exports of services, such as software, is also sizable. Microsoft has been in China for 30 years.


Yet growing evidence shows the two countries growing ever further apart, and that’s bad news for Washington.

Xi Jinping is poised to receive a third term as general secretary of the Communist Party, along with a host of titles he has amassed since rising to power in 2012. This breaks the term limits imposed since the early 1990s to prevent factions within the party and ensure the peaceful transition of power.

Now, Xi is poised to become the longest-serving and most powerful Chinese leader since Mao.

Xi arrived here by consolidating his power through anti-corruption investigations and allegations, including against potential rivals.

He has also increasingly required state-owned companies to conform to the party’s xenophobic national security agenda. This represents a sharp reversal from the years of opening to the West.

In addition, Xi has called for a faster military buildup. China has fielded “carrier-killer missiles” aimed at American flat tops. But Beijing is building its own carriers, including its first catapult-assisted one.


China appears to be expanding its intercontinental ballistic missile sites and deployed warheads far beyond the minimum deterrent of the past. Either way, Puget Sound would be a first-strike target for China, especially because of the ballistic missile submarine base at Bangor.

Less apocalyptic, China has launched its first indigenous airliner, the C919, built by state-owned Comac. It’s a direct competitor to narrowbody jets from Boeing and Airbus, making China only the third airline maker in the world.

Even before Xi’s latest aspirations, China has sought to depend less on Western technology and products. It often violates the World Trade Organization, subsidizing industries and failing to protect foreign intellectual property.

No wonder, then, that many of President Donald Trump’s tariffs were continued by the Biden administration. Recently, President Joe Biden unveiled the most stringent rules against technology exports to China in decades.

Earlier this month, Biden said the United States faces a “decisive decade” in its rivalry with Beijing. For one thing, China intends to take democratic Taiwan, which it considers a breakaway province, by force if necessary. After decades of “strategic ambiguity,” Biden has pledged to defend Taiwan.


“China harbors the intention and, increasingly, the capacity to reshape the international order in favor of one that tilts the global playing field to its benefit, even as the United States remains committed to managing the competition between our countries responsibly,” the White House wrote in a 48-page document.

A Pew Research Center poll in 2021 found 89% of American respondents consider China a competitor or enemy, rather than a partner.

With its military buildup and Xi’s bellicose language, China’s former emphasis on “soft power” — notably its Belt and Road initiative to build infrastructure from east Asia to Europe — is taking a back seat to hard power.

No wonder talk of a post-neoliberal world and decoupling the world’s two largest economies is well under way.

The wind is not necessarily at Xi’s back. China faces a “demographic time bomb” of an aging population. The stability and longevity of authoritarian states is not a good one. China remains dependent on imports of oil and other essentials. Decoupling from the liberal order means less action on climate change, bad for us all.

Francis Fukuyama, famous as the author of the 1992 book, “The End of History and the Last Man,” doubled down on his thesis in a recent article in the Atlantic. He laid out two big weaknesses of “strong states.”

“First, the concentration of power in the hands of a single leader at the top all but guarantees low-quality decision making, and over time will produce truly catastrophic consequences,” he wrote. “Second, the absence of public discussion and debate in ‘strong’ states, and of any mechanism of accountability, means that the leader’s support is shallow, and can erode at a moment’s notice.”

Which brings us back to us. The good years between Washington state and China are over. It’s anyone’s guess what this decisive decade will bring.