The one issue where Democrats are to the right of Trump

The one issue where Democrats are to the right of Trump
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There are almost no issues where Democratic presidential candidates want to run to the right of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpChasten Buttigieg: 'I've been dealing with the likes of Rush Limbaugh my entire life' Lawmakers paint different pictures of Trump's 'opportunity zone' program We must not turn our heads from the effects of traumatic brain injuries MORE; an exception is China.

With growing public, as well as expert, concerns about China as an economic, national security, spying and political threat, Democrats don't want to expose themselves to a “soft on China” charge that Donald Trump will make.

This was evident on stage at last week’s presidential debate in Los Angeles. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegChasten Buttigieg: 'I've been dealing with the likes of Rush Limbaugh my entire life' San Diego Union-Tribune endorses Buttigieg 'Where's your spoon?' What we didn't learn in the latest debate MORE said if China's human rights abuses continue against Muslims and Hong Kong pro-Democracy protesters, he'd consider withdrawing the 2022 Bejing Olympics.

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Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe Biden'Where's your spoon?' What we didn't learn in the latest debate Sanders nabs endorsement from Congressional Hispanic Caucus member Poll: Sanders holds 7-point lead in crucial California primary MORE advocated moving most of American sea power to Asia to counter the Chinese military buildup. He also suggested going to the United Nations to seek sanctions against Chinese abuses.

These are sincere beliefs, yet more a necessary political posture than framing a substantive change to relations with America's chief rival.

It is, at least, more than the current administration's policy. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that all Trump cares about is being able to declare a victory over China in his trade war — whether real or not. The bigger stuff of technology, national and cyber security, political freedoms and human rights is of less concern.

With all those issues, China combines the Cold War national security and ideological threat of the Soviet Union and the late 20th century economic and cultural perceived threat of Japan.

Graham Allison, a Harvard scholar and national security expert has warned of the historical dangers when a ruling power is challenged by a rising power — the Thucydides trap — there often is war.

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That would be catastrophic. Thoughtful politicians like Sen. Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsDemocratic senators ask DOJ watchdog to expand Giuliani probe Graham warned Pentagon chief about consequences of Africa policy: report Democrats fear rule of law crumbling under Trump MORE (D-Del.), warn of the danger and the need for “a relationship with China in which we strive to cooperate as much as we compete in our efforts to set the rules that will govern international affairs.”

Coons goes on, however, to point out that's a daunting challenge. “There is a mistaken belief that a Democrat winning the White House in 2020 would fundamentally change the dynamics between the United States and China," the Democratic lawmaker noted in a speech this fall. "I think they will not change" and there will be "a consistent pressure and challenge from American domestic politics going forward."

The tough on tariffs policy isn't working. The minor trade deal supposedly cut this month still leaves Trump tariffs on $360 billion of Chinese exports. (The offsetting assistance to U.S. farmers has cost $28 billion, more than double the net cost of auto bailout a decade ago.)

"Fixating on the bilateral trade deficit and pursuing unilateral tariffs against China is unlikely to change Chinese behavior," recently wrote two Brookings Institution scholars.

The Democratic candidates generally agree; none has pledged to lift the tariffs right away. They all call for working more closely with allies on the issues. Yet top contenders like Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren declines to disavow super PAC that supports her San Diego Union-Tribune endorses Buttigieg 'Where's your spoon?' What we didn't learn in the latest debate MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersNevada Democratic debate draws record-breaking 19.7 million viewers 'Where's your spoon?' What we didn't learn in the latest debate Ocasio-Cortez defends Warren against 'misogynist trope' MORE (I-Vt.) opposed Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaMeghan McCain after Gaetz says Trump should pardon Roger Stone: 'Oh come on' Trump seeks to distance strong economy from Obama policies in White House report The Hill's Morning Report - Democrats duke it out during Nevada debate MORE's Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact with the U.S. and a dozen other Pacific nations designed to counter Chinese economic clout.

The greater challenge of technology, cyber security and Chinese military ambitions don't lend themselves to easy answers. There is no question China is using its technological advances and intelligence-gathering capabilities to enforce its authoritarian rule at home and extend its influence abroad. In the background is Taiwan, where the leading candidate in the presidential election favors a more aggressive stance toward China.

China's authoritarianism is on the rise; they're sending Muslims into concentration camps and threatening crackdowns on democracy protesters in Hong Kong. This doesn't interest Trump; he's not a human rights guy.

China is confident, proud, ambitious, and patient; America has almost forgotten the Vietnam War which was 50 years ago. The 19th century Opium Wars — in which China lost Hong Kong for 150 years — still resonates there.

Ahead, America has to see and treat China as a genuine peer, the other superpower. China has to abandon dreams of political, military, and economic hegemony in Asia. Yet there is considerable resistance in both countries.

The Democrats will continue to sound tough on China. But the campaign trail isn't the place where a new China policy will be formed.

Albert R. Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter-century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @alhuntdc.