Trans-Pacific View

The First Republican Presidential Debate Revealed a Crucial Split on China Policy 

Recent Features

Trans-Pacific View | Politics | East Asia

The First Republican Presidential Debate Revealed a Crucial Split on China Policy 

The clash between Reaganism and the non-interventionism championed by the rising New Right will have enormous implications for China policy.

The First Republican Presidential Debate Revealed a Crucial Split on China Policy 

Republican presidential candidates, from left, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum stand on stage and listen to a prayer before a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX News Channel, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee.

Credit: AP Photo/Morry Gash

Vying for the limelight in the absence of former President Donald Trump, eight Republican presidential candidates – seasoned politicians and green hands alike – joined the party’s first primary debate on August 23. The event was chock-full of spicy moments, where finger-pointing and name-calling were almost out of control.

Although all Republican candidates unanimously embraced an anti-China rhetoric as part of their foreign policy, a longstanding yet well-hidden chasm between the GOP establishment and the New Right finally made its national debut: whether or not to adopt interventionist approaches to the China issue.

This divide became evident through the emergence of entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. During the debate, the political newcomer overshadowed hopeful Ron DeSantis – the Florida governor who once was seen as the favorite to win the nomination. Ramaswamy not only took  center stage during the debate, but also bore the brunt of fire from other candidates.

As a self-claimed iconoclast with no previous political experience, Ramaswamy has put forth a series of unconventional domestic policies, including raising the voting age to 25 and laying off 75 percent of the federal workforce. However, it was his foreign policy that rendered him the chief target on the GOP debate stage, particularly his adamant advocacy of non-interventionism.

Ramaswamy’s Ivy League education has not only equipped him with rapid-fire debating skills, but also cultivated a shrewdness in concealing his real foreign policy agenda using carefully-crafted rhetoric. Having jumped on the anti-China bandwagon that is prevailing within the GOP, Ramaswamy did not shy away from framing Communist China as the real threat that the United States faces today, like many other candidates did. But categorizing him solely as a member of the growing anti-China legion in the United States would be an oversimplification.

Is Ramaswamy a China hawk? From his verbal stance, there is no doubt. His unequivocal referring to China as a threat cannot be more telling. And his comment on moving the United States’ “strategic ambiguity” on the Taiwan issue to “strategic clarity” is surely something that would only come out of the mouth of an outspoken, if not radical, China hawk. But the real driving force behind his tough China policy is “America First,” which is the tenor of the New Right.

In that respect, Ramaswamy’s proposals may be couched in overtly anti-China terms, but in essence, they subtly avoid head-on confrontations with China. For example, he suggested arming every Taiwanese household as a deterrent against Chinese invasion; he also proposed curbing unfair trade with China by restricting American firms’ expansion in China, instead of the other way around. While those policies might come across as formidable, they all conveniently circumvent a face-off with China.

Ramaswamy’s fellow Republican contenders have observed this nuance.

When Ramaswamy charged that the United States was “driving Russia further into China’s arms” and asserted that no politician was addressing the imminent threat posed by the China-Russia military alliance to U.S. national security, former Vice President Mike Pence, as one of the candidates on the stage, categorically refuted that. Pence maintained that a belief “China will not think about taking Taiwan” is merely wishful thinking. Pence concluded his rebuttal with a succinct yet sonorous phrase: “We achieve peace through strength” – a testimony of his commitment to the Reagan-style interventionism regarding the China-Taiwan issue.

Other than Pence, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley took an even more assertive stance by accusing Ramaswamy of “want[ing] to give Taiwan to China.” For the GOP establishment, Ramaswamy’s approach was, intentionally or unintentionally, reduced to appeasement toward China.

Putting aside grandstanding and the cacophony for attention that any presidential candidate is more or less obliged to present on a debate stage, there is a real tension underlying these exchanges: the clash between the Reaganism embraced by the GOP establishment and the non-interventionism championed by the rising New Right. Even though the tension was more evident in their divergent positions on the Ukraine war during the debate, China is undoubtedly a bigger and thornier issue that will continue to widen the chasm within the Republicans in the following years.

Ramaswamy is not alone in articulating his non-interventionist China policy within the GOP. Having urged his fellow Republicans to adopt a more cautious policy toward China, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is another prominent Republican figure who embodies the creeping departure of the New Right from Reagan’s sunny optimism, which once justified U.S. interventionism. Even on the GOP debate stage, some other candidates subtly revealed their non-interventionist inclinations on the China issue, though Ramaswamy was the one who drew most of the fire.

For instance, DeSantis, despite his efforts to incorporate the “culture war” sentiment into his China policy, still purported that the first obligation of the president of the United States is to defend the country and its people. His objection to endless aid to Ukraine implies that his counter-China policies will most likely take effect only when U.S. interests are directly threatened, and his primary targets will continue to be China-affiliated entities that “run amok” on U.S. soil (such as TikTok).

Another candidate, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, even boldly avoided the request to comment on China entirely, instead opting to frame U.S. interests within the context of border security. As a ranking member of the Senate Banking Committee, Scott has also been criticized by GOP national security hawks for his wavering stance on containing China.

The New Right might still look like a work in progress compared to the establishment, but it is rapidly gaining momentum as a new generation of “unorthodox” Republicans begins to coalesce. Ramaswamy expressed his intention to appoint Rand Paul, his like-minded GOP fellow, as chair of Federal Reserve if he became the president; DeSantis is building a close relationship with the New Right despite the potential costs.

Will non-interventionism become the tenor of the GOP’s China policy for the 2024 election, as an alternative to Biden’s anti-China clarion? It is still hard to say, and much will depend on who ends up being the Republican candidate in the end. But what is certain is that the divide on China policy within the GOP will only get worse before it gets better, as the candidates are accelerating the realignment of diverse interest groups within the party.