Presidential Candidates Need to Stop Bashing China

One important issue that should be the topic of sober discussions in the ongoing U.S. presidential campaign is policy toward China.   Instead, that topic receives inadequate attention–especially compared to the obsession with every minutia of Middle East policy. As I point out in a recent article in China-U.S. Focus, when China policy is not ignored, candidates too often take shrill positions to score cheap political points. That has been true in nearly every presidential election cycle since the Carter administration established diplomatic relations with Beijing.

Although Donald Trump seems determined to ignite a trade war with China, Carly Fiorina and Gov. Scott Walker have been especially prone to engage in China-bashing on a broader basis. Fiorina has taken an extremely confrontational stance regarding such complex issues as the South China Sea territorial disputes and cyber security. In an interview with CBS News, she recommended that the United States increase its provocative flyover aerial surveillance of the South China Sea. And it is clear that she has no sympathy for Beijing’s territorial claims. “We cannot permit China to control a trade route through which passes $5 trillion worth of goods and services every year,” she stated bluntly. 

Fiorina was mild on the South China Sea controversy compared to her stance regarding recent cyber attacks—which she blithely assumed originated in China and were approved by the Chinese government. She contended that such attacks were an act of aggression against the United States, implying that an especially confrontational response was warranted.

Walker has likewise advocated a extremely hard-line policy.  In a July interview with The National Interest, he portrayed China as a threat, stating that Washington needed to beef-up its military capabilities in East Asia, strengthen its alliances with Beijing’s neighbors, and develop a robust cyber capability “that punishes China for its hacking.”  And as if those positions would not be enough to poison the bilateral relationship, Walker stressed that the United States needed to “speak out against the abysmal lack of freedoms in China.”  Interestingly, Walker has not adopted a similar position with respect to human rights abuses committed by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other U.S. allies.

Matters have become worse in the days since I wrote the China-U.S. Focus article. Walker recently insisted that President Obama rescind his invitation to Chinese Xi Jinping for a state visit to Washington in September. Chinese leaders (and the Chinese people) would regard a rescission as a gratuitous insult, so that proposal is especially irresponsible. 

Sen. Marco Rubio also has entered the China-bashing sweepstakes. Although Rubio took a shot at China’s human rights record, labeling it “a disgrace,” it was clear that Beijing’s principal sin, in his view, is its defiance of U.S. hegemony in East Asia. “Xi Jinping is trying to convince his country’s 1.3 billion people that the way to establish Chinese greatness is to undermine the United States and enhance China’s influence at our expense,” he fumed. The goal, Rubio assumed, was “to push America out of Asia.” Numerous scholars have pointed out that Beijing’s policy is far more ambivalent and nuanced than that, but such subtleties tend to get lost in the heat of presidential campaigns.

The onset of shrill, combative rhetoric is most unfortunate. The United States and China do have some major substantive disagreements, and they deserve to be addressed. But it is important that candidates do so in a sober, constructive fashion. Campaign grandstanding, even if not meant seriously, creates needless suspicions and resentment in U.S.-China relations. Presidential candidates need to remember that preserving a cordial relationship with China must be a top U.S. foreign policy priority. Bilateral cooperation enables China and the United States to foster global strategic stability and economic prosperity. Conversely, a breakdown of the relationship would lead to unpleasant and possibly catastrophic consequences. Policy toward China is far too important for candidates either to ignore or demagogue.