The presidential and vice presidential debates and other developments over the past few weeks have raised troubling questions. The prospect of one of the running mates becoming an early, unelected president appears greater than it has since John Tyler succeeded the suddenly ill and deceased William Henry Harrison a month after their inauguration in 1841.
Concerns are rising over the physical and mental fitness of both President TrumpDonald TrumpOmar, Muslim Democrats decry Islamophobia amid death threats On The Money — Powell pivots as inflation rises Trump cheers CNN's Cuomo suspension MORE, 74 and diagnosed with COVID-19, and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenCDC working to tighten testing requirement for international travelers On The Money — Powell pivots as inflation rises Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Manchin seeks 'adjustments' to spending plan MORE, who at 78 would be the oldest person to take office and at times appears to have cognitive issues. That makes the suitability of Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PencePence-linked group launches 0K ad campaign in West Virginia praising Manchin Jan. 6 panel releases contempt report on Trump DOJ official ahead of censure vote Pence calls for Roe v. Wade to be sent to 'ash heap of history' ahead of abortion ruling MORE, 61, and Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisTrump: McConnell must use debt limit to crush Biden agenda Building back a better vice presidency Stacey Abrams nominated to board of solar energy firm MORE, 55, to confront current national security and foreign policy challenges a matter of critical national importance.
An aggressive Communist China — which President Obama’s national intelligence director called America’s “greatest mortal threat” — is the most urgent international issue he or she would face. The discussion of China in the vice presidential debate was limited, but revealing and concerning.
Moderator Susan Page, of USA Today, asked both candidates this question: “How would you describe our fundamental relationship with China? Competitors? Adversaries? Enemies?”
Pence answered: “Fortunately, President Trump, in dealing with China from the outset of this administration, [is] standing up to China, that had been taking advantage of America for decades, in the wake of Joe Biden’s cheerleading for China. President Trump has stood up to China and will continue to stand strong. We want to improve the relationship, but we’re going to level the playing field.”
Harris said: “Let’s talk about America’s standing. Pew, a reputable research firm, … shows that leaders of all of our formerly allied countries … hold a greater esteem and respect [for] Xi Jinping, the head of the Chinese Communist Party, than they do Donald Trump, the president, the commander in chief of the United States. This is where we are today, because of a failure of leadership by this administration.”
(The Pew Research Group describes its findings this way: “Ratings for Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinOvernight Defense & National Security — Austin mandates vaccine for Guardsmen Russia's ultimatum: Will Ukraine negotiate peace or risk conflict? The dual threats confronting Ukraine MORE and Chinese President Xi Jinping are overwhelmingly negative, although not as negative as those for Trump.”)
Page then followed up with Harris: “What is your definition of the role of American leadership in 2020?” Harris’s response:
“Joe, I think, he said, quite well … ‘Foreign policy: it might sound complicated, but really it’s relationships there — just think about it as relationships. … Got to be loyal to your friends. People who have stood with you, got to stand with them. You got to know who your adversaries are, and keep them in check.’ But what we have seen with Donald Trump is that he has betrayed our friends and embraced dictators around the world. [I]t’s about relationships. And the thing that has always been part of the strength of our nation, in addition to our great military, has been that we keep our word. But Donald Trump doesn’t understand that, because he doesn’t understand what it means to be honest.”
According to Pew, the pandemic has taken a toll on the reputation of both China and the United States. In its poll taken in February, Pew found: “Views of the U.S. remain strongly favorable when compared with those of China in the Asia-Pacific.”
Harris’s answers were telling because, like Pence, she was reflecting the views of the person at the top of the ticket, and Biden often has touted his personal relationships with other world leaders, just as has Trump. But both make the mistake of conflating personal rapport with state-to-state relations. National leaders determine policies and behavior based on their perception of their nation’s interests. And China’s leaders define their interests even more rigidly — what is good for the Communist Party, rather than the nation.
Biden may have enjoyed cordial relations with Putin and Xi, but the Obama-Biden administration neither kept America’s adversaries in check nor showed loyalty to our friends, such as our Philippines ally whose South China Sea territory was seized by China; the Syrian victims of Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons; democratic Taiwan when Washington refused to provide needed self-defense weapons; or the people of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine who were invaded by Russia.
Even Trump’s severest critics are reluctantly coming around to acknowledge that his administration’s China policies often have been correct. Pence is perfectly situated to continue those policies. Along with Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoNo time for the timid: The dual threats of progressives and Trump Psaki: Sexism contributes to some criticism of Harris Mnuchin, Pompeo mulled plan to remove Trump after Jan. 6: book MORE, Pence has led in setting the most moral, realistic tone on the nature of the existential China danger of any administration in the past four decades.
In a landmark speech last year, which some saw as declaring a new Cold War, Pence identified the long-growing China threat: “[S]oon after it took power in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party began to pursue authoritarian expansionism. … America had hoped that economic liberalization would bring China into a greater partnership with us and with the world. Instead, China has chosen economic aggression, which has in turn emboldened its growing military.”
Pence’s clear-eyed vision on the nature of the China threat matches Trump’s own instincts and would make for a seamless presidential transition, should that be necessary. The president could even conclude that the polls are right this time and step aside before Nov. 3 to avoid not only personal defeat but repudiation of his policies and performance over the past four years.
A successful Pence substitute candidacy, unfettered by the animus directed at Trump’s character and personal style, would ensure vindication of his administration’s policies, and their continuation. Completion of the Trump administration without Trump would seal the positive aspects of his historic legacy.
More importantly for the national interest, a Pence presidency would prevent a Biden or Harris return to the failed China policies of a quarter-century of the Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonMaxwell accuser testifies the British socialite was present when Epstein abuse occurred Epstein pilot testifies Maxwell was 'number two' in operation Federal judge changes his mind about stepping down, eliminating vacancy for Biden to fill MORE, George W. Bush and Obama administrations.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute.