Democrats Are Walking A Fine Line On The Election's Main Foreign Policy Issue: China

Biden is struggling to appear tough without fueling hawkishness or racism. His platform mentions China 22 times, compared to seven references in 2016.

At several points during his presidential campaign, Democratic nominee Joe Biden has alarmed some foreign policy doves and progressive activists with what came off as belligerence toward China ― like when he said in an April ad that President Donald Trump “rolled over for the Chinese” and promised to be tougher.

Such messages run the risk of bolstering hawkishness and racism at home and making other items on Biden’s agenda — like rallying international action against climate change and ending the economic pain of Trump’s trade wars — harder to accomplish.

But some clear political incentives exist for Biden to push an aggressive posture. For one thing, Trump and his allies are calling the Democrat “Beijing Biden” and highlighting his son Hunter’s former business venture in the country. That has created what some Biden allies say is an obvious need to respond with bluster.

And a Pew survey conducted in June and July found that Americans have an increasingly unfavorable view of China, with Democrats especially wary of the U.S.’s close economic relationship with the country and keen to press its leaders on human rights concerns, like the Chinese government’s abuses against Uighurs. Democratic officials are eager to highlight Trump’s record of flattering Chinese President Xi Jinping and overlooking Xi’s failure to uphold his side of Trump’s much-touted trade deal by buying more U.S. goods.

Biden’s posture has reflected these dueling pressures. In May, he released a less alarmist message, narrowly focusing on Trump’s support for China’s leadership and avoiding fear-mongering about Chinese people. In his speech accepting the nomination at the virtual Democratic National Convention on Thursday, Biden only said of China: “We’ll make the medical supplies and protective equipment our country needs. And we’ll make them here in America. So we will never again be at the mercy of China and other foreign countries in order to protect our own people.”

Yet the party’s 2020 platform mentions China 22 times in largely adversarial terms compared to seven references in the 2016 document. And overall, the current platform adopts a tone that suggests it’s chosen to engage in what experts warn could be a race to the bottom ― and a more dangerous world.

Biden’s foreign policy circle also points to a potentially more hawkish approach. Michèle Flournoy, widely expected to be tapped by Biden as defense secretary, recently wrote that while conflict would not serve the interests of either the U.S. or China, the American military and its partners should consider developing capabilities to, for instance, sink the entire Chinese Navy within 72 hours to deter Beijing. Flournoy argued that China was becoming more confident because it perceives Washington as weak.

Another Biden national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, also has called for more U.S.-led naval exercises in waters near China.

Marcy Winograd, a Democratic convention delegate, said, “I would urge the Biden administration to reject advice from” Flournoy.

Winograd, who helped organize a letter signed by hundreds of delegates that criticized Flournoy, Sullivan and other top Biden foreign policy aides, continued in an email, “What would we think if China conducted war games off the coast of California? We would interpret it as a threat.”

Her views show how China could divide the party’s factions despite the unity it has built on other international issues, like ending U.S. support for a Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen that Biden and former President Barack Obama greenlit. Biden’s commitment to that has impressed her, Winograd said.

Michèle Flournoy, an undersecretary for defense in former President Barack Obama's administration, is seen as a frontrunner to serve as defense secretary under Joe Biden. Her views on U.S. policy toward China have raised concerns among progressives.
Michèle Flournoy, an undersecretary for defense in former President Barack Obama's administration, is seen as a frontrunner to serve as defense secretary under Joe Biden. Her views on U.S. policy toward China have raised concerns among progressives.
Yuri Gripas / Reuters

The repeated references at the Democratic convention about winning over Republicans and showcasing Biden’s ties to figures associated with foreign interventions like Iraq War architect Colin Powell and late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) also suggested the candidate isn’t as wary of the thinking that led to past mistakes as some in his coalition would like. Indeed, some Republican foreign policy figures, including former Trump officials, see an opportunity to help shape Biden’s approach to China because they have given up on the president, The Daily Beast reported.

Speaking to reporters during the convention, influential Democrats working on global affairs emphasized a party consensus on the China issue and confidence that Biden would craft a thoughtful strategy in office.

In Biden, the nation would be “putting somebody in the White House who understands how to fight and cooperate with a country like China at the same time,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who party insiders often mention as a possible secretary of state. “There are very few people, maybe no one else that we could have nominated for president, who will be ready to understand the complicated nuance of that relationship better than him.”

Rep. Ro Khanna of California, who co-chaired the Democratic presidential primary campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), said the party is offering “a two-track approach” that is “different from Trump’s call for a new Cold War.”

Asked about concerns from the left that Democrats could adopt an overly confrontational approach, particularly in trying to court some GOP voters, Khanna said, “I don’t think that’s where Biden’s instincts are. I think he will seek to bridge divides around the world and project a better and more cooperative American framework.”

Murphy added that in this election, “We are the national security party.”

A policy born of that identity isn’t necessarily bellicose; in speaking of areas to compete with China, for instance, Murphy repeatedly has called for the U.S. to encourage innovation more quickly than that nation. And China experts advising Biden like Ely Ratner and Ryan Hass have spoken of ensuring the U.S. is focused on rebuilding its strength at home and making clear it seeks to engage with Beijing beyond just pressuring it.

Still, the public perception and environment that Democrats create matters ― and the political winds they help shape can ultimately influence crucial decisions on international relations more than careful analysis.

“We have to also speak about ending these wars and the foreign interventionism and I’m hopeful that that will be part of the theme tonight,” Khanna said ahead of the convention’s final night.

It wasn’t.

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