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Foreign Policy

US Presidential Candidates Silent on China

Sep 09 , 2019
  • Angela Zhang

    American Scholar at Yenching Academy, Peking University

Despite the tensions boiling over between Washington and Beijing, the 2020 U.S. Democratic presidential contenders have thus far remained tightlipped about their views on China and seem to be reluctant to share their overarching vision for the U.S.-China relationship. But the question remains: if elected, how would each Democratic presidential candidate handle the issues that exist between China and the United States?

Because American voters tend to prioritize bread-and-butter domestic issues like the economy, healthcare, and education over foreign policy and global trade, presidential candidates typically put less emphasis on international affairs during their campaigns. Nonetheless, U.S. President Donald Trump, who announced his 2020 re-election bid in June, has made the trade war with China a focal point of his foreign policy agenda as well as his re-election campaign.  

The trade war and mounting tensions between the U.S. and China are affecting multiple facets of American society, ranging from Hollywood to Silicon Valley, agriculture to science. The inextricable linkage between U.S. foreign policy and domestic politics means that American voters can no longer emphasize domestic issues like the economy without also considering U.S. policy towards China. Given China’s importance on the world stage and its influence on the U.S. domestically, it is critical that Democratic candidates give China more weight in their 2020 campaigns and foreign policy plans.

Based on the little information they have shared about their stances on China, it seems that Democratic presidential candidates are generally in agreement with U.S. President Donald Trump that the U.S. must take a “tough-on-China” tact. During the first Democratic debate in June, four candidates voiced their belief that China is the biggest geopolitical threat facing the United States. Other candidates have also expressed wariness over China.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, for instance, proclaimed that China has "weaponized its economy". New Jersey Senator Cory Booker labelled the Chinese government a “totalitarian regime” that has been “taking advantage of this country.” Similarly, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg called China’s model “the perfection of dictatorship.” On the other hand, Democratic frontrunner and former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden claimed in February that China is "not competition for us." After facing backlash from both parties, however, he promptly retreated, declaring “We are in competition with China” and “need to get tough.”

While most candidates are supportive of Trump’s decision to be confrontational rather than conciliatory towards China, they tend to disagree about the particular strategy. Many have criticized Trump’s trade policies and tariffs on Chinese imports, in large part for hurting U.S. farmers and workers. Rather than use tariffs or sign onto trade deals, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders would use executive orders to bar U.S. companies from outsourcing jobs. Former Maryland congressman John Delaney, meanwhile, supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership, viewing it as a mechanism for influencing global players like China to play by international rules.

In addition to trade, candidates have expressed disagreement with the Trump administration’s handling of what they say is China’s imprisonment of over 1 million Uighurs in internment camps in the western region of Xinjiang. Biden, Booker, Buttigieg, and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro would use the Global Magnitsky Act to sanction officials running the camps as well as put companies that help build the camps and accompanying surveillance systems on the Commerce Department’s Entity List.

So far, Mayor Buttigieg has offered the most nuanced take of the Democratic candidates, going beyond specific issues and instead contrasting the two political models offered by the U.S. and China. During the first debate, he noted the urgency of “invest[ing] in our own domestic competitiveness,” especially while China’s  authoritarian model is viewed as an ever more attractive alternative to the U.S.’s democratic model in light of political divisions and polarization in the U.S.. Even so, he has yet to offer more details on what exactly this approach would entail and what it means for the bilateral relationship.

Although Democratic candidates have proposed a few ideas about how they would respond differently from President Trump on certain China-related matters, none have provided a complete strategy for how to deal with China. Ahead of the third Democratic presidential debate this month, candidates (and the media) have the opportunity to give more weight to discussions about foreign policy and, importantly, the U.S. approach towards China.

The executive branch can wield a great amount of authority with respect to foreign policy decision-making, and the nature of the U.S.-China relationship in the next decade has the potential to shape not only the future of the two countries but also the future of the world. As such, it is ever more vital for presidential candidates to articulate a clear vision for the terms of America’s relationship with China. Until then, the question remains as to whether the Democratic candidates would, if elected, ultimately continue Trump’s legacy or redefine the U.S.-China relationship entirely. 

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