Republican presidential candidates spent the fall in an escalating battle for the heart of their party and the support of its voters. Each of the dozen-odd candidates has made feverish attempts to rise above the cacophony, repeatedly redefining precedents for the conservative mainstream on issues domestic and international. Although they have surpassed the general level of pugnacity favored by their typically hawkish party, the candidates have been unusually soft spoken on China. Beijing was not mentioned at any length until December’s CNN debate, where the messaging was superficial at best.
China was discussed by only five of the nine candidates at the CNN’s December 15th Republican Presidential Debate held in Las Vegas. The topics covered ranged from internet censorship and cyberattacks to trade relations and East Asian diplomacy, all falling within the debate’s focus of national security. Over the course of the debate’s two hours, the Middle East dominated the event, despite several attempts by CNN moderators to steer the conversation toward East Asia, and to China in particular.
The China narrative unfolding in the 2016 GOP presidential primary is defined by two themes, distinct but not incompatible. The first is China’s inclusion into the pantheon of challengers to American dominance, as perceived by conservative politicians. As seen during earlier contests during this debate season, prominent Republican candidates have listed China among the likes of North Korea, Iran, Japan and Mexico – each of which are supposed to pose a militaristic, economic or diplomatic threat to the United States.
Two candidates – Rand Paul and Donald Trump – used China as a buzzword, listing it among other countries to add emphasis to their arguments. Paul attacked Trump’s proposal to censor and regulate the internet for security reasons, suggesting that it would be a slippery slope that threatened American liberty. In doing so, he cited China in an awkward case of false equivalence.
“The real question is, what does he mean by that?” Paul inquired of Trump’s plan. “Like they do in North Korea? Like they do in China?”
Trump’s opening statement presented China as one of many monolithic global antagonists that demand a watchful eye. As in earlier debates, he avoided specific concerns and instead offered a selection of countries and topics to create a general sense of urgency.
“My total focus was on building up our military, building up our strength, building up our borders, making sure that China, Japan, Mexico, both at the border and in trade, no longer take advantage of this country,” he began.
One important distinction between China and other countries used as fodder in Republican debates is that it is almost never referenced in xenophobic terms. Mexico is seen as the perpetrator of unwanted immigration, and Iran and ISIS are discussed as part of a larger Islamic threat, but China – like Japan – is typically mentioned within the context of policy. The candidates have clearly separated the Chinese government and its policies from its people, a tendency that Chris Christie displayed at the debate when asked about cyberattacks.
“What we need to do is go at the things that are most sensitive and embarrassing to them, that they’re hiding – get that information and put it out in public,” Christie said. “Let the Chinese people start to digest how corrupt the Chinese government is, how they steal from the Chinese people and how they’re enriching oligarchs all throughout China.”
The second theme seen in the Republican candidates’ discussions of China is truly a departure from past election cycles. Several GOP presidential hopefuls have shifted their messaging from simple antagonism to the position that the United States needs to alter its behavior to win China’s respect. Although they still regard the Chinese as a rival, these candidates have pointed to American inadequacies to explain fissures in the bilateral relationship. They also prescribe tough love as the remedy.
“China is a rising adversary,” says Carly Fiorina, the candidate most trenchant on the issue. “So one of the things we have to do if we want China’s support is to push back on China. They, too, recognize one thing – strength and their own economic interest.”
Fiorina’s bellicose comments, calling for China’s containment and for retaliation for cyberattacks, were undermined by her conclusion: that the goal of China-U.S. relations should be cooperation on reining in North Korea. Ben Carson echoed that point in his own follow-up, punching far above his weight on the subject of East Asian diplomacy.
“Well I do believe that [Kim Jong-Un] is unstable, and I do, in fact, believe that China has a lot more influence with him than we do.”
Establishment candidate Jeb Bush put the argument in the clearest terms, making the case that cyberattacks are a foregone conclusion unless the American government wins Beijing’s respect.
“This is something – we need to have the best defensive capabilities,” said Bush. He continued, “[China] will respect that. They’ll respect a United States that is serious about protecting our infrastructure. If we don’t do it, we’ll continue to see exactly what’s happening – not just from the Chinese, by the way.”
The GOP stance on China is open to interpretation, but the Democrats offer nothing to be misconstrued. By and large, their three presidential candidates have been content to focus on domestic concerns, in contrast with Republicans. Foreign policy is a particular strong suit of Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s, and her breadth of knowledge has been an advantage in debates. Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley have done their utmost to avoid the subject; Sanders prefers to talk banking reform and O’Malley pushes gun control. Consequently, the only mention of “china” at ABC’s December 19th Democratic Presidential Debate was in reference to White House dinnerware.
The takeaway from the 2016 presidential election cycle thus far is that China is mostly unscathed. Democratic presidential candidates have nearly nothing at all to say about China, and what little the Republicans have said has been tempered from previous elections and shows a desire for bilateral cooperation. With the odds of a GOP presidential win growing dimmer, any offense Beijing has taken from recent debates could be moot. Besides, it’s important to parse these statements in context; there’s a lot more political expediency than substance to be found. So far in this primary, Donald Trump has called Mexicans “rapists,” Ted Cruz has called for regime change in Iran, and Chris Christie has proudly pledged to shoot down Russian aircraft. China has been recognized by the Republicans as an adversary worthy of respect, and as a desirable partner in tackling regional problems; its standing in this contest is far better than par for the course.