The major candidates vying to become the next president of the United States in the current election campaign have hitherto paid much less attention to China as a military power – and much more to its economic prowess (and humanitarian deficits). They reflect Americans’ grave concerns about their economic future – and the weariness of any and all military engagements.
Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders reflects this trend more clearly than the other candidates. In plain English, he is a strong protectionist (although he says that he wishes Chinese workers well). His criticisms of the current China policy are outlined in his “Income and Wealth Inequality” platform. He criticizes “NAFTA, CAFTA, and PNTR with China that have driven down wages and caused the loss of millions of [American] jobs.” He would object to such arrangements in the future and seek to greatly modify existing ones, to ensure what others call “fair trade” rather than “free trade.” Instead of trade deals such as the TPP, Sanders believes the U.S. should “develop trade policies which demand that American corporations create jobs here, and not abroad.”
He pays much less mind to foreign policy. When he does, he favors staving off the Chinese military build-up by “granting the White House the ability to place sanctions on any individual or country that violates an arms embargo with China.” A member of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, Sanders has also denounced violations of the human rights and freedom of religion violations by China. No talk here about AirSea Battle, as it used to be known. or buying more F-35s, nuclear submarines, or other means of a U.S. military build-ups just in case the U.S. must confront China at some point in the future.
Many observers note that Donald Trump draws on similar populist sentiments to those that have helped drive Sanders’ surprising political rise. Trump’s China policy is also economically focused. He too denounces the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which he sees as “a deal that’s designed for China to come in, as they always do, through the back door and totally take advantage of everyone.” And like Sanders, he chides China for “taking” away American jobs. He calls for declaring China a currency manipulator, requiring China to respect intellectual property laws, ending Chinese export subsidies, and reducing federal debt so China cannot employ “financial blackmail.”
Defense policy receives a brief mention. Trump calls for bolstering the American military presence in the East and South China Seas to deter Chinese “adventurism.” Note that this is hardly a very forceful move, from a candidate known for favoring extreme measures on other fronts such as dealing with Muslims and illegal immigrants.
Republican Marco Rubio is also focused on economic issues (foreign policy is not his strongest suit) but takes a rather different tack. He has stated that “[a]s President, I would respond to China’s economic misconduct not through aggressive retaliation, which would hurt us as much as them, but by reinforcing our insistence on free markets and trade.” He, though, is willing to impose penalties on China for violations of intellectual property rights. He adds that “if China continues to use military force] to advance its illegitimate claims, I will not hesitate to take action.” This is a rather mild statement compared to the standard phrase: use “all necessary means.” The same is true of Rubio favoring more Freedom of Navigation patrols as a means to counter what he views as Chinese aggression. The U.S. engages in scores of such patrols every year, including against countries such as Canada and Chile. And the Obama Administration has conducted several of these recently.
Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, appealing to conservative voters, highlights human rights abuses by the Chinese government. His list of victims of China’s repression includes “ethnic minorities, religious believers, and dissidents and human rights defenders.” Cruz often tells his audiences about how PRC officials forced an abortion on Feng Jianmei under the one-child policy. To protest such acts, Ted Cruz initiated a bill in the Senate to rename the street on which the Chinese Embassy in Washington sits after Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese dissident and activist. Like other candidates in this campaign, he does not call for major military build-ups, reflecting it seems the neo-isolationism of the Tea Party and other libertarians.
Republican Governor John Kasich of Ohio similarly talks big but carries a very small stick. (To be clear: I do not favor waving a big stick either, but would rather not talk big and have it backed up by very little.) Kasich states that “One thing the Chinese understand is not talk, it’s action.” His main response? Deploy a carrier strike group to the South China Sea and relocate the Pacific Command Combatant Commander’s headquarters to Guam. Not a significant difference from the current policy of the Obama Administration.
Hillary Clinton, not surprisingly, is the only candidate who approaches American-Chinese relations primarily from a foreign policy perspective. She favors balancing assertiveness and diplomacy but, perhaps wisely, does not spell out what this means. She often expresses strong concerns about human rights abuses by China, especially regarding women’s rights. She used to favor free trade, but no longer does, or at least does not until the primaries are over, and she no longer needs to compete with Senator Sanders. Most recently she called for “claw backs” – rescinding tax benefits granted to corporations if they move jobs overseas.
Several China hawks are troubled. “It’s not that ISIS and Iran and Russia aren’t problems, but in the long run, the bigger potential challenge is China,” said Aaron Friedberg, a former White House national security aide to Vice President Dick Cheney. Douglas Paal, a former top U.S. representative to Taiwan said: “The public is more concerned with ISIS and Russia before they get to China. They should be more concerned with China than the other two.” So far, their voices have not swayed either the public or the candidates.
If this trend continues, the next president may well take office without a strong mandate for TPP and other free market initiatives. She or he will have even less support for a major military build-up focused on the Far rather than the Middle East. And not much support for stronger moves other than renaming a street or repositioning some naval vessels to counter what Washington views as China’s growing assertiveness.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at The George Washington University. His is the author of Hot Spots and Security First. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. To subscribe to his monthly newsletter, send an e-mail with the subject line “Subscribe” to: [email protected].