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The Newsom-DeSantis Debate Reveals Growing Partisan Conflict Over US China Policy

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The Newsom-DeSantis Debate Reveals Growing Partisan Conflict Over US China Policy

The debate between the state governors highlighted the divide between Democrats and Republicans on China.

The Newsom-DeSantis Debate Reveals Growing Partisan Conflict Over US China Policy

California Governor Gavin Newsom (left) meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, China, Oct. 25, 2023.

Credit: California Governor’s Office

The recent debate between California Governor Gavin Newsom (a Democrat) and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (a Republican) could preview a future political showdown. The all-out verbal brawl between the two of the nation’s most well-known governors laid bare their profound ideological disparities across contentious topics such as crime, education, migration, and abortion. 

Although the spotlight remained predominantly on domestic affairs, China was brought up in the end. Both Newsom and DeSantis wielded the “China card” by seeking to assert themselves as a more resolute challenger to the rival nation than their counterpart. Underneath the theatrical clash between the two parties’ prominent figures lies a growing partisan conflict over China policy.

As a self-proclaimed China hawk, DeSantis has never shied away from publicly referring to China as the greatest geopolitical threat to the United States. Resonating with the GOP’s current prevailing calls for decreasing dependence on China, DeSantis has actively pursued the realization of his vision for “strategic decoupling” with the country through state legislation, including banning TikTok from schools and government servers in Florida – an action that has been stalled on the federal level due to partisan gridlock – and prohibiting Chinese citizens from purchases of certain properties. 

In contrast to his biggest opponent in the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, former President Donald Trump, DeSantis avoids approaching China-U.S. relations through an economic lens. Instead, he tends to position his anti-China measures under the broader umbrella of national security. He also injects his domestic “culture war” mentality into his China policy by prioritizing ideological differences between the United States and China. This inclination can be exemplified by his preference of Japan to China as his Asia trip destination prior to his announcement of presidential bid, despite China’s stronger economic ties to Florida compared to Japan. 

Much as DeSantis used the “China card” to attack his political opponents during the GOP presidential debates, he employed the same tactic to target Newsom while laying out his China policy. DeSantis purposefully contrasted Newsom’s trip to China with his own intentional avoidance of the country during his Asia trip, portraying himself as a more resolute force against the nation than his Democratic rival. “I will not go to China and grovel in front of [Chinese President] Xi like Gavin Newsom did,” DeSantis boasted. 

Gavin Newsom, as a rising star within the Democratic Party, was the first U.S. governor to visit China in over four years, and the first to meet with Xi Jinping since former Governor Jerry Brown in 2017. Critics have labeled this high-profile trip as Newsom’s subtle maneuvering in a “shadow campaign” for the presidency, despite his repeated denial of such ambitions. Nevertheless, this visit played a significant role in setting the stage for the subsequent meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Xi.

In the debate against DeSantis, Newsom sought to stake out a strong stance against China, claiming that he had “confronted Xi on the issue of fentanyl and human rights.” However, even Newsom’s own website characterized the meeting between Newsom and Xi more as a “discussion” than a “confrontation,” highlighting the positive outcomes they achieved. Contrary to Newsom’s assertion, some sources indicate that the California governor never brought up human rights issues with Xi but instead focused on climate change.

No matter how confrontational Newsom claimed he was toward Xi, his China trip reflected the tenor of Biden’s China policy: a pursuit of détente between the United States and China. The Biden administration sees a need to temporarily downgrade the weight attached to topics that are deemed sensitive by Beijing, such as Taiwan and human rights. Xi, in turn, also realized the importance of playing along, considering the urgent priority to restore China’s economic growth and global reputation. As a result, during the Biden-Xi summit, both sides prioritized progress on agreements addressing the climate crisis and global illicit drug manufacturing and trafficking, deliberately allocating limited time to discuss human rights violations in China or the Taiwan issue.

The Biden administration’s efforts to broker rapprochement with China garnered support from a broad spectrum of Democrats. Following the Biden-Xi meeting, a group of Democratic senators welcomed the dialogue between the two nations and expressed expectations for increased cooperation in the future. Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Illinois), despite serving as the ranking member of the GOP-led House Select Committee on China, commended Biden for engaging with Xi. 

As Biden is gearing up for reelection, the Democratic Party recognizes the imperative to unite to thwart a potential comeback by Trump. Hence, Biden is sending a “rally-around-the-flag” signal to his fellow Democrats, seeking their positive response to his political maneuvers on China. But unlike the 2020 presidential election where candidates competed to be tougher on China, the current emphasis is on making a breakthrough in China-U.S. tensions. 

This message has been well received not only by Biden’s supporters, but also by his challengers within the party, such as Dean Phillips, who even criticized Biden for calling Xi a dictator and pledged to work toward resetting the relationship between the two nations.

In stark contrast, the Republican stance on China continues to center on containment. Led by Jim Risch (R-Idaho), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 22 Republicans issued a statement that vehemently criticized Biden’s meeting with Xi. Not only did they reject healthy economic competition with China, but they demanded that the Biden administration not “give an inch on U.S. policy on Taiwan.” To take it up a notch, the new House speaker, Mike Johnson, asserted that Biden was projecting weakness by meeting with Xi.

However, underneath the almost unanimous demand within the Republican Party for a tougher China policy lie differences in how to exactly approach the country. As provocative as DeSantis’ remarks sound on the need to have “hard power in the Indo-Pacific to deter China’s ambitions,” his actions, such as banning Confucius Institutes and blocking TikTok, underscore his tendency to align with the New Right. This faction of the GOP stands for an internal balancing strategy with China, characterized by non-interventionism. Their prioritization of the U.S. interest suggests that China policy needs to be made primarily on the basis of conserving resources for domestic affairs. This stands in contrast to other Republicans who advocate for an external balancing strategy, a move to actively check China on the economic, military, and diplomatic dimensions in the Indo-Pacific by forming alliances. 

The removal of Kevin McCarthy as the House speaker suggests an increasing influence of the far-right group, whose foreign policy largely aligns with the New Right, within the Republican Party. How much of that influence will translate into the GOP’s ultimate China policy for the 2024 presidential election will likely hinge on factors such as who will be the GOP nominee and the result of Taiwan’s 2024 presidential election

Nonetheless, it is anticipated that the partisan conflict over China will be a significant focal point in the lead-up to the election, as the Democratic Party has already taken steps to de-escalate tensions with the country, while the GOP, at least rhetorically, remains steadfast in its refusal to yield on this front.