Amidst the many headline-grabbing moments of the Republican and Democratic national conventions, both parties released their platforms for the 2016 election. While both platforms mentioned the U.S.-China relationship, there was very little room for agreement on how the United States should deal with China in the years to come. The Republicans and Democrats both displayed some “dragon slayer” tendencies — after all nobody wants to look weak in international politics. But the platforms showed substantive differences on how Washington should deal with Beijing.
The Democrats: Continuing the Pivot
The core of the Democratic platform is the Obama administration’s “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia, which was spearheaded by Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State. The platform considers East Asian allies such as Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines to be essential for achieving U.S. interests in the region. According to the platform, “We will also work with our allies and partners to fortify regional institutions and norms as well as protect freedom of the seas in the South China Sea.” Importantly, allies are not explicitly called on to balance against China or try to contain its rise.
The primary source of hawkish language on China in the Democratic platform is found on page 49. The platform states, “We will stand up to Beijing on unfair trade practices, currency manipulation, censorship of the internet, piracy, and cyberattacks.” However, and in stark contrast to the Republican platform, the very next sentence mentions “areas of cooperation” with Beijing that the Democrats will pursue. Seeking cooperation with China on issues like climate change and nuclear proliferation and standing up to Beijing when important interests are threatened is a continuation of the Obama administration’s policies.
If Hillary Clinton wins in November and follows through on this platform, then expect the United States to stay the course in the pivot to Asia. Whether or not this policy will achieve its intended goals is questionable given China’s intransigence in response to the Obama administration’s policies, but Beijing likely prefers a continuation of the pivot to the harsh stance spelled out in the GOP platform.
The Republicans: China is the Enemy, and We Will Defeat It
The Republican platform is adamant about the threat China poses to the United States and cooperation is practically impossible. According to the Republicans, the United States has tried playing nice with China, but has gotten nothing in return besides unfair trade policies, regional instability, grave human rights violations, and the revival of “the cult of Mao.” Chinese activities in the South China Sea are one example of how the Obama administration’s weakness has “invited aggression.” China is presented as an enemy, and the United States does not cooperate with its enemies.
The Republican platform is also more hawkish on Taiwan. Taiwan’s democratic system of government, human rights record, and open economy are “saluted” in the GOP platform, but not in the Democratic platform. This makes American support for, and if need be defense of, Taiwan essential for normative, not just practical reasons. Additionally, the Republicans affirm the Six Assurances to Taiwan made by President Reagan in 1982, which the Democratic platform does not mention.
Implementing the GOP platform would put the United States into an outright adversarial relationship with China characterized by greater U.S. criticism of China’s human rights record and activities in cyberspace, and a stronger U.S. military stance to prevent weakness from inviting aggression. However, it is unclear how much of the platform would be implemented by Donald Trump if he is elected president. His tough talk on economic issues suggests adherence to those aspects of the platform, but weakening U.S. alliance relationships could undermine the platform’s language on Taiwan and the treaty allies.
Both the Republican and Democratic platforms reflect a willingness to get tougher with China, albeit in different ways and to a different degree. The Democrats want to continue the pivot to Asia and strengthen the alliance system that Chinese leaders see as a vehicle for containment. The Republicans want to reclaim a moral high ground and confront China on its human rights record, territorial ambitions, and cyber activities. No matter who wins in November, U.S.-China relations are heading toward a period where competition will trump cooperation.