The Democratic debates should include a focus on China

The Democratic debates should include a focus on China

During the first Democratic debates last month, four candidates cited China as the “biggest geopolitical threat” facing the United States. Indeed, the United States is facing many challenges in its relationship with China, from intellectual property theft to broader issues involving competing ideologies and visions for the international order.

From trade and security to technology and human rights, the outcomes of bilateral frictions in these areas will have an outsize impact on life in the 21st century. More fundamentally, they stem from competing conceptions of the state’s relationship with the individual, sovereignty in the modern world and, ultimately, what constitutes human freedom. 

Despite this, the first debate included no substantive questions regarding the candidates’ approaches to China policy. At the next debate, candidates should convey the significance of the China challenge in digestible terms and demonstrate an understanding of the relevant issues with comprehensive policy prescriptions. Below are a few areas that the Democratic voting base and the public would benefit hearing from the candidates about:

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  • Economics and Trade: The Trump administration’s launch of a Section 301 investigation into China’s trade and economic practices has resulted in the imposition of tariffs on an estimated USD 250 billion in Chinese imports. While this approach has arguably prompted the acceleration of certain reforms in China, it has done little to change reality for U.S. companies on the ground. Moreover, China is unlikely to enact sweeping reforms solely in response to U.S. pressure. Luckily, U.S. partners and allies share many concerns vis-a-vis China’s economic practices. Hosts of the upcoming debate should ask the candidates how their approach to these issues might involve international coalition-building in specific areas of U.S. concern, going beyond the current administration’s overwhelming focus on the trade deficit. Getting this right will ensure fair treatment of U.S. and foreign companies in the world’s second-largest economy and prevent China from stifling U.S. innovative capacity and future economic prosperity at home. 
  • Security: Chinese President Xi Jinping’s pledge to create an armed force capable of “fighting and winning wars” has manifested itself in China’s military power projection in Asia and beyond. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) now boasts high-tech weapons, operates in new domains such as cyber and space, and projects power beyond the so-called “first island chain” on China’s periphery. The next commander-in-chief must find ways to protect U.S. interests in Asia and beyond while avoiding direct conflict or unnecessary escalation. As such, hosts at this week’s Democratic debate should ask the candidates how they would manage aggressive interactions with China that fall below the threshold of conflict and what U.S. interests should be prioritized in this regard. Given the U.S. defense budget’s overwhelming focus on developing next-generation capabilities to maintain U.S. military dominance over China, the American public deserves to know how exactly the executive branch will utilize them.  
  • Next-Generation Technology: The Trump administration is especially focused on stifling Huawei’s international expansion plans given the telecommunication company’s demonstrated ties to China’s military and security state apparatus. This is not simply an issue of U.S. dominance in a next-generation technology; it is grounded in more consequential national security concerns around the potential for an international network of 5G technology that could be utilized in furtherance of China’s strategic priorities. Candidates should have a working knowledge of this issue and be asked to address how their administration would ensure that development of 5G networks across the world is not dominated by the tech champion of an authoritarian regime. The outcome on this front will have far-reaching implications for life in the twenty-first century, particularly in terms of data privacy, the security of information and communications technologies, and even control over future methods of transportation. 
  • Ideology and Divergent Political Systems: U.S. relations with China fall under a larger umbrella of competing ideologies and visions for the global order. The Chinese government is engaged in widespread, systematic oppression, from the growing “social credit system” to the detainment of hundreds of thousands of Uyghur Muslims in “re-education” camps in Xinjiang. Moreover, China’s coercive methods at the international level have protected its ability to engage in, and eventually export, technology-enabled authoritarianism. Given these trends, questions arise as to which country is shaping the future rules of the road in the international system. The hosts at the next debate should thus ask the candidates what role the United States should play in preventing China’s coercion-ridden initiatives from gaining relative traction. If not addressed in a comprehensive manner with other like-minded countries, the U.S. may enable the propagation of China’s illiberal vision for the global order, undermining the very system that has guaranteed many of the freedoms that we take for granted today. 

Successful eras of cooperation in the U.S.-China relationship have been driven by individuals with considerable foresight on both sides. In the current era, with technology fundamentally altering state-to-state engagement as well as the individual’s relationship with domestic and foreign governments, the need for a forward-looking China policy is all the more urgent. If unmet with U.S. leadership, the future international system could be shaped by an authoritarian regime that maintains a singular focus on ensuring its own longevity.

Those vying to become America’s next president should recognize that the decisions made in the aforementioned areas will have an inordinate impact on the future global order. They should thus begin laying out their approach for consideration by the U.S. public.

Annie Kowalewski is a Pacific Forum Young Leader and DC-based researcher who focuses on the Chinese military and US defense policy in the Indo-Pacific. Austin Lowe is a Washington, DC-based consultant and analyst specializing in U.S.-China relations and Asia policy.