Top Democratic presidential candidates pledged to pressure China over its crackdown on Muslim minorities and protesters during Thursday night’s presidential debate, with front-runner Joe Biden going as far as accusing Beijing of running “concentration camps.”
China’s authoritarian government appears to have been paying attention: A CNN correspondent in China reported that the live feed of the debate went blank as Democrats discussed the nation.
Democrats were largely united in criticizing China over its arrest of more than a million citizens in the western region of Xinjiang and the government’s increasingly assertive role in the politics of the semi-autonomous city of Hong Kong ― but they were vague about specific actions they would take to influence Chinese behavior.
“We have to be firm; we don’t have to go to war but we have to make it clear this is as far as you are going to go,” Biden said of the Chinese government.
United Nations experts stunned the world last year by saying they believe China has rounded up hundreds of thousands of people, mostly members of the Uighur community, and placed them in detention facilities. Chinese officials initially denied the reports but have since defended their approach as a way to give Uighurs and others vocational training and to counter extremism ― implying that detainees pose a risk because they are Muslim.
The U.S. government now believes the number of people being held by the Chinese government could be closer to 2 million. Human rights groups and former detainees say the camps are sites of torture, forced labor and abuse.
Human rights should be central to America’s future relationship with China, Democratic candidates argued.
Buttigieg referenced the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, when Chinese authorities killed student demonstrators, and said the U.S. has a responsibility to Hong Kong.
“If they perpetuate a repeat of anything like Tiananmen Square when it comes to Hong Kong, they will be isolated from the free world and we will lead the isolation diplomatically and economically,” Buttigieg said.
Buttigieg critiqued President Donald Trump’s focus on China as a trade rival: The relationship between the world’s two largest economies should touch on “a lot more … than who’s selling more dishwashers,” he said.
PBS journalist and moderator Judy Woodruff pressed candidates on the question of broader U.S. competition with China as that country becomes stronger ― a top concern for U.S. foreign policy experts.
Chinese technological advancements over the U.S. are problematic, Yang said. Biden noted that former President Barack Obama, whom he served under, sought to push more than half of America’s naval forces to the Pacific as a signal to Beijing.
“In terms of their military buildup, it’s real, but it would take them about 17 years to build up to where we are,” Biden said. “We’re not looking for a war.”
The U.S. should have gone to the United Nations to seek sanctions against China over Xinjiang, Biden added. That’s a big ask: China is one of five countries that can veto any actions taken by the U.N.; its leaders are unlikely to turn that institution’s power on themselves.
If elected, Biden said he would shore up alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia and Indonesia ― key players in China’s neighborhood ― to signal strength.
It’s clear that candidates feel compelled to pay attention to China, but it’s still hard to tell what they would actually do or whether that would fit with popular calls for Democrats to craft a more progressive foreign policy that’s true to U.S. values but not overly aggressive abroad.
Woodruff raised one option: boycotting the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing in protest. Buttigieg declined to say if he would do so, although he said he would leave all options on the table.
“We actually can’t isolate ourselves from China. In fact, we have to work with them as a frenemy,” Steyer said.
Equivocating on China probably won’t be an easy position for candidates as they approach the election. Getting tough on Beijing rhetorically is something Trump has already done (even as he’s undercut his credibility on rights issues by praising autocrats elsewhere), and the president is looking to reach a trade deal with the country that he can use as a way to say he’s successfully readjusted the U.S.-China relationship.
Whoever Trump’s Democratic opponent is, they will need to have more to say than any of the contenders did Thursday night.