China on the agenda: 2024 candidates fret over how to deal with Beijing


The United States’ tangled and increasingly fraught relationship with China is emerging centre stage in the 2024 presidential campaign in a rare case of foreign policy capturing the limelight in the race for the White House.

Half-a-century since a Republican president, Richard Nixon, made a historic visit to communist China to carve out a lauded strategic opening in the election year of 1972, Republican candidates vying to succeed him in the Oval Office are showcasing a range of hawkish policies designed to counter the perceived threat from Beijing.

Now, Republican focus is mirrored by the Democratic administration of Joe Biden, which has defined China as the main US strategic rival and this week dispatched the commerce secretary, Gina Raimondo, for talks with Chinese leaders on trade issues.

She is the latest in a series of key American figures to visit the country in recent months as the administration seeks to stabilise relations after years of rising tensions.

Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, CIA director William Burns, Janet Yellen, the treasury secretary, and John Kerry, the administration’s climate envoy, have all gone to China since April in a coordinated diplomatic offensive aimed at resetting ties.

The visits appear to have been timed with the campaign cycle in mind.

“I think China will be an enduring issue because people have started to realize, particularly Republican voters, that while foreign policy generally reflects what’s happening abroad, when it relates to China’s economic and military status, that really does affect us at home,” said Carrie Filipetti, executive director of the Vandenberg Coalition, which works with elected officials and candidates on foreign policy.

“It’s not only a foreign policy issue. It’s in many ways also a domestic policy issue.”

It is a view supported by opinion polls. A Gallup survey in March showed just 15% of voters holding a positive view of China, down 38 points since 2018 and the lowest favourability rating since polling on the issue began in 1979.

Republican voters view China with greater animosity than Democrats, although a rare consensus has evolved between the two parties in recent years that the country’s rise represents a threat – even if they disagree sharply on what to do about it. A bi-partisan congressional committee held its first meeting in the House of Representatives in February this year, days after a Chinese surveillance balloon floated into US airspace, before being shot down over South Carolina.

Unlike popular suspicion of the Soviet Union during the cold war – based on a pervasive atmosphere of superpower confrontation – rising anti-China hostility is fuelled by a widespread belief that it amounts to a more economically sophisticated adversary that could tangibly impact American daily life.

The rawest example concerns the Covid pandemic, whose baleful legacy is still keenly felt in the US. Christopher Wray, the FBI director, crystallised enduring American anger over the virus when he confirmed the bureau believed that its spread was caused by a laboratory accident in Wuhan, despite Chinese denials.

Another source of resentment is fentanyl, a powerful synthetic drug that accounted for two-thirds of 110,000 American opioid-related deaths in 2022. US officials charge that precursor chemicals for the drug originate in China, before being shipped by crime syndicates to Mexican drug cartels, which then manufacture the finished product before trafficking it to the United States.

China’s influence on US education establishments has also aroused suspicion. Concerns have been voiced in congress over the rise of Confucius institutes, set up in American colleges to teach Chinese language and culture with official state funding which, critics say, comes with strings attached – including free-speech restrictions on issues of strategic concern to China, such as Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang province, where the communist regime is accused of ethnic genocide against the minority Uyghur population.

Then there is TikTok, a Chinese-owned social media platform with 150 million American users, which critics cast as a national security threat amid claims that it can be used for surveillance purposes.

Above all else are fears about China’s increasing economic prowess – seen by many as taking away American jobs – and a military build-up, including an increase in inter-continental ballistic missiles to match the US nuclear arsenal, that many fear could presage an attack on Taiwan and draw the US into a war.

“When you look at issues typically ranking high amongst conservative voters, it’s the economy, education and, very often, public safety business,” said Filipetti. “Dig deeper into these three categories and you can see a Chinese influence.”

Against that backdrop, confrontation with China was highlighted by seven of the eight Republican candidates who participated in last week’s televised debate in Milwaukee. Arguably the most controversial contribution belonged to Vivek Ramaswamy, a populist anti-establishment candidate, who denounced US aid to help Ukraine repel Russia’s invasion as driving Moscow “further into China’s arms”, adding that “the Russian-Chinese military alliance is the single biggest threat we face”.

Donald Trump, the former president and 2024 Republican frontrunner – who was absent from the debate – has outlined his own anti-China stance, vowing in common with several other GOP hopefuls, to revoke the country’s “most favoured nation” trade status and to “completely eliminate US dependence on China”.

Yet Trump, who unleashed a trade war during his presidency by imposing tariffs on a range of Chinese goods, has communicated mixed signals and worried even some conservatives by calling Xi Jinping, China’s strongman president, “brilliant”.

“He runs 1.4 billion people with an iron fist. Smart, brilliant, everything perfect,” Trump told a Fox News event hosted by Sean Hannity in July.

How well Biden survives Republican attacks on his China policy may depend on voters’ perceptions of what constitutes strength versus weakness.

“When Trump was president he protested on one issue, which was the bilateral trade deficit. He was never focused on the security threats and didn’t care about our alliances,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China specialist at the German Marshall Fund in Washington.

“You could say the Biden administration has been following what the Trump administration started but also that it has taken concrete measures to counter the threat that China poses.”

These have included export controls and moves to limit outbound investment into China – aimed at curbing Chinese ability to develop and use hi-tech such as semiconductors and AI to make military advances that could threaten US and allied national security.

None of this is likely to lessen China as an election issue. “This is going to permeate whatever debates happen in foreign policy,” said Glaser. “Candidates don’t want to be seen as soft on China and I think the Chinese are bracing themselves for being more central in our election campaign than ever before.”

The Guardian

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