Features | Politics

The US Democrats’ China Debate

None of Trump’s Democratic would-be rivals look likely to adopt a softer stance on China.

By Craig Kafura for
The US Democrats’ China Debate

From left, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Andrew Yang participate in the second of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN Wednesday, July 31, 2019, in the Fox Theatre in Detroit.

Credit: AP Photo/Paul Sancya

The 2020 election comes at a pivotal time for the U.S.-China relationship. Long gone is the Obama administration’s welcome of “the rise of a stable, peaceful, and prosperous China.” Today, the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy states bluntly that “China…want[s] to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests”; its National Defense Strategy labels China a “strategic competitor.”

The pivot in relations between Washington and Beijing comes as policymakers on both sides of the aisle debate how — or whether — the long-held bipartisan strategy of engagement with China failed. Hank Paulson, speaking in Singapore in November, told the audience that “America’s longstanding ‘engagement’ policy is now widely viewed as being of little use for its own sake… nearly everybody is arguing that the results of U.S.-China dialogue and engagement have been poor.” As Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner wrote last spring in Foreign Affairs, “All sides of the policy debate erred… Neither carrots nor sticks have swayed China as predicted.”

It is tempting to think that this shift in Sino-American relations is unique to the Trump administration, and that the relationship will return to the status quo ante following his eventual White House departure. But rethinking the U.S.-China relationship is not a Trump-specific phenomenon.

On stage, the Democratic candidates aren’t backing away from a confrontation with China. When asked in the first Democratic debate on June 27 how they would stand up to China, Michael Bennet, Andrew Yang, and Pete Buttigieg all took on the question, and no one disagreed with the premise. Instead, they all argued along a similar line: That “the China challenge really is a serious one” (Buttigieg), that President Donald Trump was “right to push back on China” (Bennet), but that “the tariffs and the trade war are the wrong way to go” (Yang). This same line came back in the second Democratic debate on July 30: That “President Trump was onto something when he talked about China” (Tim Ryan), but was bungling the execution “without allies and friends and partners” (Beto O’Rourke). This common line of argument frames the parameters of the present Democratic debate on China: Agreement that the United States is right to stand up to China on trade issues, it just needs to do so in a different way.

China also plays a central role in the professed foreign policies of the top Democratic candidates. Of the five candidates leading the polls (Joe Biden, Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren), all but Harris have given major foreign policy speeches as candidates. Senators Sanders and Warren have staked out one camp, framing China as a challenge to the U.S.-led order as part of a global fight against spreading authoritarianism. In a second camp is South Bend, Indiana Mayor Buttigieg, who agrees with Sanders and Warren on the threat of authoritarianism, but pivots from that threat into a call for a national renewal rather than extensive international competition.  And in a third camp is former Vice President Biden, whose stance on China over the past several months has swung dramatically, from arguing China represented little threat to the United States over to pledging to confront China with a global alliance of democracies.

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The Left Flank: Warren and Sanders

Sanders and Warren were the first to lay out their visions for U.S. foreign policy, and the marker they’ve placed has clearly influenced how other candidates have framed their own foreign policies. Both Sanders and Warren link domestic concerns to international ones in very direct ways, and their foreign policy visions are animated by three similar general principles. First, both senators point to the threat of growing authoritarianism around the world. Second, they link the rise of that authoritarianism to broader issues of inequality and corruption. And third, they explicitly argue that America’s competitors like Russia and China are part and parcel of these trends, forming what Sanders calls an “authoritarian axis.”

For both, China is front and center in this authoritarian axis, and Warren in particular slams China’s behavior and its leadership. Arguing that China “weaponized its economy without ever loosening its domestic political constraints,” she warns that Beijing is “using its economic might to bludgeon its way onto the world stage and offering a model in which economic gains legitimize oppression.” In response, she argues the United States and its allies in Asia must “build alternatives to China’s coercive diplomacy” and “work to penalize [China’s] theft of U.S. intellectual property.”

Both candidates also present a unified critique that cuts across lines of international or domestic issues. Warren argues that we should “end the fiction that our domestic and foreign policies are somehow separate.” Sanders similarly frames the domestic (inequality and corruption) and the international (oligarchy and authoritarianism) as two sides of the same coin, “inseparable. They must be understood as part of the same system, and fought in the same way.” Their arguments also tap into a vein of economic nationalism within the Democratic party; as Warren puts it, the same trade deals that benefited China “lifted the boats of the wealthy while leaving millions of working Americans to drown.”

Mayor Pete’s Foreign Policy

Unusually for a small-town mayor, Pete Buttigieg has deep foreign policy interests and aimed to lay them out in an early speech delivered at Indiana University. Buttigieg argues that China and its alternative of an “international expansion of authoritarian capitalism” make it ever more important for America to stand for its own values. Notably, he also points to areas of cooperation with China, including on climate change, terrorism, and peacekeeping. And in the rise of China, Buttigieg sees more than just conflict or competition, but also “an opportunity to come together across the political divide.”

Here is where Buttigieg parts ways with Warren and Sanders, for whom China’s authoritarianism and corruption are explicitly linked to rising authoritarianism and corruption at home. For Buttigieg, China’s authoritarianism instead presents an opportunity for self-renewal: “The single best thing we can do to roll back authoritarianism abroad is to model the strength of inclusive democratic capitalism right here in the United States.” Mayor Pete’s vision of U.S.-China competition draws on touchstone moments in American presidential rhetoric, equal parts Kennedy’s “ask not” and Reagan’s “shining city.” But it is also a rejection of past policy, dismissing the notion of putting things as they were before, and instead looking forward to a new competitive struggle.

Biden Our Time on China

You might expect the Democratic debate on foreign policy — and on China — to be led by the candidate with the most foreign policymaking experience: Biden, who served as vice president under Barack Obama. But in a sign of how quickly the parameters of debate have shifted, Biden is still finding his footing in the China debate.

Before launching his candidacy, Biden generally downplayed concerns about China in his speeches. In a 2017 speech, Biden told a sold-out ballroom that he “want[ed] China to succeed,” reminded the crowd of China’s internal challenges on basic issues of energy and water, and shrugged off the “idea that they’re going to eat our lunch.” This view of China continued on the campaign trail. In Iowa in May, Biden laughed off the idea that China represents a challenge to U.S. power, pointing to China’s own internal problems of systemic corruption and division. “They’re not bad folks, folks,” he concluded. “…They’re not competition for us.”

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That put Biden out of step with the rest of the Democratic party, and he quickly backtracked. He now calls China “a serious challenge… and in some areas a real threat,” arguing that “[w]e need to get tough with China.” But Biden also retained some elements of that previous view, noting that he’s “worried about China… if we keep following Trump’s path.”

A few weeks after the first round of Democratic debates, Biden aimed to reconsolidate his foreign policy approach, and flex his international credentials, with a foreign policy speech in New York. While the speech shares several now-common themes among Democratic candidates, Biden’s repeated references to the “free world” evoke an earlier, older vocabulary of American foreign policy. Saying that “we need to get tough on China,” the former vice president argues for “a united front of friend and partners to challenge China’s abusive behavior.” And like Buttigieg, Biden also leaves the door open for cooperating with Beijing where “interests converge, like climate change and preventing nuclear proliferation.”

Playing to an Attentive Audience

This debate isn’t just happening for the benefit of Democratic-aligned policy wonks. The Democratic public is also tuning in to foreign policy issues. According to 2018 Chicago Council Survey data, 45 percent of Democrats say they are very interested in news about the relations of the United States with other countries, a high point unmatched since 2002 following the September 11th attacks.

In addition to their increasing interest in foreign policy news, there is a longer-term shift in Democrats’ foreign policy views that deserves careful attention. Over the last several years, often pre-dating the Trump administration and the 2016 campaign, Democrats have become broadly more supportive of their allies. This is a trend which manifests itself in a variety of ways: in the goals Democrats say are very important, in who Democrats say the United States should consult with in making foreign policy decisions, in Democrats’ feelings about U.S. policy in Asia and Europe, and in Democrats’ willingness to use military force abroad.

The Democratic public is also shifting on China. In part, this comes from their growing embrace of U.S. allies. Two-thirds of Democrats (66 percent) say that the United States should put a higher priority on building up our strong relations with traditional allies like South Korea and Japan, even if this might diminish our relations with China. It’s a sharp change from 2012, when only half of Democrats said the same (49 percent). Democrats are also coming to see China and the U.S. as rivals, rather than partners. From 2006 to 2018, Democrats were divided on the question, but by February 2019, two-thirds of Democrats (63 percent) saw the two nations as rivals. And according to the 2019 Pew Global Attitudes Survey, a majority of Democrats (59 percent) have an unfavorable view of China, the least favorable view since Pew first asked the question in 2005.

The Widening Gyre

If Trump exits the White House in 2021, exactly which Democrat replaces him will matter for the specifics of U.S.-China policy, but the boundaries of that policy are already being set. A global struggle against authoritarianism and in support of democratic nations points to stronger U.S. support for its democratic partners and allies around Asia, confronting Chinese influence efforts around the region, and further escalations of technological trade disputes. In 2020, Democrats are going to attack Trump for being too cozy with authoritarian countries, not too hard on them, and for being ineffectual in combating China on the economic front, not for fighting in the first place. As Warren said in her speech at American University, “President Trump seems all too comfortable with this rising authoritarianism… His trade policies toward China are hardly stopping Chinese economic malfeasance.” And Biden, speaking six months later, echoed the same point. “President Trump may think he’s being tough on China. All he’s delivered… is American farmers, manufacturers, and consumers losing and paying more.”

Perhaps in January 2021, a newly inaugurated President Biden will invoke the language of a free world opposed to an authoritarian China. Or President Warren will bash Beijing for its belligerent behavior in the South China Sea. Maybe President Buttigieg will contrast the shining democratic capitalist city on the hill with the dark, repressive regime of the CCP. But none of them look to pursue a more dovish path than the Trump administration.

Craig Kafura is assistant director for public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a security fellow with the Truman National Security Project, and a Pacific Forum Young Leader. Follow him on Twitter @ckafura.