Prior to entering the 2024 U.S. presidential race, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis had already outlined a key aspect of his foreign policy – how to approach China. Just a month before launching his presidential bid, DeSantis embarked on a diplomatic mission to Asia with a dual purpose: On the surface, to strengthen economic ties between Florida and Japan, and, in essence, to signify his determination to ally with Asian democracies to counter China.
With DeSantis’s name recognition on both the national and the international stage, he is a formidable candidate in the 2024 Republican primary. As such, he is poised to wield influence over U.S. policy toward China by doing what he does best: fighting “culture wars.”
As a self-styled anti-woke fighter, DeSantis initiated a fierce storm of ideological and cultural wars that are extending beyond Florida and resonating throughout the whole country. He has signed bills restricting access to abortion services, loosening gun controls, and prohibiting diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, all of which have invited applause from conservatives but tremendous backlash from liberals.
To take it up a notch, DeSantis employs a similar approach to handling China issues as he does with domestic politics – reducing complex issues to battles in the culture war. He often reduces China and Chinese citizens to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and advocates for bills in the name of counteracting the malign influence of the CCP. Not only has he banned TikTok from schools and government servers in Florida, but he restricted Chinese citizens from purchases of Florida’s agricultural land, land near military bases, and critical infrastructure, citing security reasons.
While DeSantis has been evasive on questions related to Ukraine since he is trying to appeal to the “New Right” within the GOP who prefer an isolationist foreign policy, he is doubling down on his efforts to counter China. Compared to a plethora of performative China bills that have been stranded in the U.S. Congress, DeSantis is vigorously pushing his own bills forward, positioning them as a manifesto of his leadership in the ideological war with China.
For instance, bills that ban Chinese citizens from owning certain properties were also proposed in other states that are more conservative than Florida, such as Arkansas and Texas. But so far, Florida stands out as the only state to pass such a bill, despite facing a flurry of protests.
DeSantis’s ambition is to promulgate his ideological anti-China policy both nationally and internationally. He takes pride in his aggressive approach, describing his legislation as a “blueprint” for safeguarding U.S. interests against foreign threats. His strategy of framing China-U.S. competition within an ideological and cultural narrative allows him to capitalize on an area where he can differentiate himself from his biggest competitor within the Republican Party: former President Donald Trump.
Although Trump has been widely credited for spurring many Americans into regarding China as an adversary, he approached China-U.S. relations mainly through an economic lens. For example, Trump imposed tariffs on Chinese products in order to address the U.S. trade deficit but refused sanctions over human rights abuses in China to avoid upsetting trade negotiations. It was not until the outbreak of COVID-19 that Trump put his hawkish pivot toward China into high gear. Just months before that, he was actually trying to mend damaged China-U.S. relations through his “Phase One” trade deal with China.
In contrast to Trump’s business-oriented opportunism, DeSantis, a former attorney, is more concerned with “law and order.” He obviously attaches less weight to China-U.S. trade and more to the national security threats that China could pose. Notwithstanding China’s strong economic ties with Florida – China is the state’s No.1 import partner and No.10 export partner – DeSantis steered clear of China during his trip to Asia. He instead chose to visit Japan, which is not even among Florida’s top 10 trade partners. Notably, DeSantis categorizes all the anti-China measures he promotes under the umbrella of national security, ranging from cybersecurity to food security, without mentioning any of the economic implications.
In the name of defending the United States’ economic self-sufficiency, DeSantis is likely to seek a genuine decoupling from China. Even though Trump has also promised decoupling measures such as prohibitions on Chinese investment and has pressed for China to pay trillions of dollars in COVID-19 reparations, his track record implies that he will be more open than DeSantis to negotiating with China. The divergence presents an opportunity for DeSantis to distinguish himself from Trump on China policy and potentially win even a portion of the latter’s far-right base.
Facing a rising China hawk who is as ideologically aggressive as DeSantis, Trump is expected to act tougher on China, at least until he secures the Republican nomination. Under such influence, Republican politicians across the country could be incentivized to press for more anti-China legislation. Meanwhile, in tandem with DeSantis’ anti-woke crusade, China policy in American politics is increasingly couched in an ideological narrative. This shift may result in a wider chasm underneath the seemingly bipartisan consensus on China.
In Congress, we have already seen a culture-war-induced partisan split over the TikTok ban; an increasing number of Democrats have supported the Chinese community to oppose anti-China bills, citing concerns over racism. As the ongoing culture war persists, such legislation may generate further partisan disagreements on China issues, catalyzed by the growing political clout of the Asian community.
Foreign policy issues rarely determine votes for American citizens, as they are usually distant from the public. However, DeSantis is expediting the localization of China issues by framing them within the context of the ongoing cultural war. In doing so, he juxtaposed China and being “woke,” suggesting that China-related investments and businesses are a critical foreign source of woke corporate ideology.
With Trump’s insistence on refraining from using mainstream social media such as Twitter, DeSantis could make the most of his “digital advantage” over Trump to push conservatives toward a trajectory that is more culturally and ideologically antagonistic to China. Whether or not he wins the Republican nomination, DeSantis has already sown the seeds of cultural war within China-U.S. relations, the influence of which would extend well beyond the 2024 presidential election.