As great power politics returns to typify the international system, there is one country on whom all eyes are upon: China. The ancient East Asian country boasts the world’s largest population, serving as home for over 1.3 billion people, and touts the second largest market on the planet (or, as of 2014, the largest in terms of GDP, PPP). Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China is transforming its enormous population and economy into massive political, commercial, and military influence, pursuing a power transition the likes of which the world has never seen.
China has used its people and treasure to begin a slow remodeling of the global system to fit its interests. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—a $1 trillion Chinese infrastructure investment program that touches 138 countries—is a grand experiment in translating development aid into geopolitical clout on an unprecedented scale. Following the reappointment of a Chinese Secretary General of the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization in 2018, the Chinese have made waves by nominating a candidate for the 2020 election of a new director general of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). China is expected to commission its first natively-built aircraft carrier (currently known as Type 001A) by the end of November 2019.
Despite these advances, several critical challenges face Beijing. Democratic protests have rattled Hong Kong for over six months; the international community has harshly excoriated the Chinese government for its imprisonment of nearly 2 million Uighurs; and American tariffs to the tune of over $500 billion have rattled the Chinese economy. These immediate problems cannot hide China’s larger structural issues, though. Eventually, China and Taiwan will be forced to directly confront their history and relationship. The 34 million excess males in China due to the combination of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) one-child policy and Chinese cultural preference for male children will prove a serious demographic challenge to the economy. And the million dollar question—can the CCP maintain its autocratic stranglehold on an economically empowered, 430 million-plus strong Chinese middle class?
These problems notwithstanding, China isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It is clear that the next president of the United States will make crucial decisions regarding the short, medium, and long-term American strategy vis-à-vis a rising China.
These are the 2020 presidential candidates’ positions on China:
President Donald Trump has taken a harsh stance on Chinese trade practices in his first term, and there is no reason to believe that he will not continue to do so if given a second. In the 2016 campaign, President Trump vociferously criticized Chinese trade practices like intellectual property (IP) theft and currency manipulation, saying that the country was responsible for “the greatest theft in the history of the world” and was “raping” the United States. In January 2018, the president ordered an investigation into Chinese theft of U.S. IP. In a watershed moment, President Trump implemented a global 25% tariff on steel imports (an industry heavily subsidized by the CCP) and a 10% tariff on aluminum imports in April 2018, and China responded with tariffs up to 25% on 128 American products. This triggered a long and ongoing trade war between the countries: the United States has imposed tariffs on over half a trillion dollars of Chinese goods, while China has tariffed close to $200 billion worth of U.S. products. In a Tweet, the president claimed, “We [the United States] don’t need China and, frankly, we’d be far better off without them.”
At the beginning of his campaign, Joe Biden challenged the notion that China was a serious threat to the United States, sarcastically asking, “China is going to eat our lunch?” when confronted with President Trump’s China policy. After receiving widespread criticism for the comment, Biden changed his tone, criticizing Chinese IP theft, violation of WTO rules, and dumping in the September 2019 Democratic primary debate. In October 2019, Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, announced he would be stepping down from his board membership for a Chinese equity firm. Biden has criticized President Trump’s tariffs on China, calling them “short-sighted,” while declaring that the United States needed to, “get tough on China.”
Pete Buttigieg has taken a long-term, structural approach to how the United States should approach China. He says that the United States should be contemplating foreign policy years down the line because “countries like China” are thinking “three to four decades” in advance. Buttigieg believes that the United States should stand by its values “amid the rise of a potent alternative.” He says that the United States should, “maintain investments in a military that can deter aggression and adventurism” instead of worrying about the “export-import balance on dishwashers.”
Gabbard understands the struggle between the United States and China to be existential. She has said that “rising tensions with nuclear armed countries like Russia and China” constitute a “new Cold War.” If these tensions are mismanaged, there will be an increased risk of “nuclear catastrophe,” a threat to the “future of the planet and the entire human race.” She says she would call a summit between the leaders of the United States, China, and Russia to cool tensions. She has called the trade war with China “destructive.”
Kamala Harris has criticized President Trump’s trade policies towards China while taking a hard stance on Chinese IP theft and technology transfers. She has called Trump’s tariffs on China “counterproductive” and argued in a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer that continued Chinese retaliatory tariffs on consumer technology products would be particularly harmful to her home state of California. In December 2018, Harris introduced a bill to expand prosecutorial jurisdiction to investigate theft of trade secrets. She emphasizes the role of multilateralism in dealing with China.
Bernie Sanders expressly acknowledges the limits on the United States’ influence on Chinese domestic policy. When asked about how the United States should respond to the Hong Kong protests and the imprisonment of Uighurs, Sanders admitted, “the United States has limited options when it comes to pressuring Beijing to change its policies.” Without naming China specifically, Sanders on his website says that “enforceable rules” against currency cheating must be at the “core of every U.S. trade agreement.” In an August 2019 interview, Sanders praised China for making, “more progress in addressing extreme poverty than any country in the history of civilization,” adding that, “they’ve [Chinese government] done a lot of things for their people.” In the same interview, he says that China is not an “existential threat.” Sanders has said that he would use tariffs in trade negotiation, but has criticized the president’s use of tariffs as “totally irrational” and “destabilizing.”
Elizabeth Warren has harshly criticized the Chinese government but suggests that the United States must cooperate with the country to address some pressing transnational problems like climate change and nuclear proliferation. In an October 2019 op-ed, Warren excoriated the CPC’s treatment of the Uighur minority, attacks on international liberal values, and repression of Hong Kong protestors. On this latter point, she accuses President Trump of sending a message that, “The United States doesn’t care about Hong Kong.” She concludes her piece by saying that, “China needs to know that the United States has options if it resorts to force in Hong Kong.” She points to Chinese government promotion of the economy as an example for how the U.S. should promote economic planning, advocating for the creation of a Department of Economic Development that will create a National Jobs Strategy every four years. In a Foreign Affairs op-ed, Warren identifies multilateral cooperation as the way forward for the United States when dealing with China and criticizes President Trump for “undermining” alliances with East Asian countries like Japan and South Korea. While she agrees with the president that U.S. trade practices should be overhauled, she argues that it is multinational corporations—not other countries like China—that have made trade practices towards America unfair.
Joseph Forcherio is Master of Arts in International Affairs candidate at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. His studies concentrate on Europe and Eurasia and U.S. foreign policy. His interests include post-communist Eurasian affairs, multilateral diplomacy, and U.S. foreign policymaking. He has worked in the executive and legislative branches, and he currently works in international affairs research.