There will be many issues central to the election this year, including the coronavirus, racial justice, economics, corruption, inequality, and more. But the key foreign policy matter for the future of the United States is a rising confrontation with China. We are hurtling toward a new cold war with China. President Trump and his administration are eager to attack and demean the Chinese for every problem. He stays so committed to blaming them that he is even willing to withdraw from the World Health Organization in the middle of a major global pandemic.
The Chinese have much to answer regarding how they handled the novel coronavirus and communicated to the world about its significant danger. For many years, China has been a persistent thorn in the side of American businesses through intellectual property theft. The Chinese are enjoying greater power and are pushing around their neighbors, including Hong Kong and American allies like South Korea and Taiwan.
There is almost no upside for Republicans or Democrats to say anything nice about China or to propose any areas where collaboration between the two countries might be productive. Yet in addition to global security issues, there are important areas where American interests coincide. It is critical to work together on climate change, global pandemic responses, science and technology, and key agricultural issues.
Trump understands that beating up on China has some utility, but that is not being a stronger leader. The problem is not figuring out how to make collaboration with China a palatable issue. American voters are skeptical of China as a positive force, and politicians must not try to convince them that they are wrong about this. But responsible politicians have to outline a sensible strategy for engaging with China that still defends American interests while leaving room for less toxic relations.
Trump is unlikely to be responsible for anything, and he certainly cannot be counted on to be responsible for a sensible strategy for China. This is problematic for American farmers. Can we treat China as an enemy and plead with them to buy our agricultural products? Can the Chinese buy our agricultural products and continue to engage in rampant intellectual property theft when they need these food items? Trump has too short an attention span to confront these questions seriously.
Perhaps Joe Biden and the Democrats can offer a path that shows that China has been taking advantage of the international economic system and unfairly tilting the balance of trade, but also shows that the Chinese invest a lot of money in factories and businesses across the country that employ many of our fellow citizens and offer a huge market for American products. We want to compete with the Chinese under an agreed set of rules. We can protect our interests from unfair Chinese actions while still having healthy diplomatic ties with this critical country.
We do not need a conflict with China in these uncertain times. American leaders must temper the rhetoric on both sides and not make the election about who can bash China the hardest. It is time for mature politicians of both parties to recognize the important need to diffuse the problems and work together to solve them. China is the source of some of our problems but not all of them. We have to heal ourselves internally on many fronts, and China cannot be the scapegoat for our challenges.
Responsible politicians must step forward with an actionable strategy for the United States to both work with and confront China on a diverse array of issues. Hearing politicians bashing China might make us feel good, but we should instead use our strengths such as ingenuity and human rights to compete with China and continue to lead the world.
Dan Glickman served as agriculture secretary under President Clinton and represented Kansas as a member of Congress. He is now a vice president at the Aspen Institute and a senior fellow with the Bipartisan Policy Center.