"Tough" Campaign Talk on China

China and America : two national flags face to face, symbol for the relationship between the two countries.
China and America : two national flags face to face, symbol for the relationship between the two countries.

Almost everyone in this presidential campaign sure is focused on being "tough."

The Republicans have done everything short of holding a physical challenge in lieu of primary voting (though Rick Perry did suggest a pull-up contest before dropping out of the race). Donald Trump claims he'll be so good at the military "your head will spin" despite stumbling over basic questions, and Marco Rubio claims his ascendance will mean that the world "will know that America is no longer under the command of someone weak." But what does "toughness" even mean?

Anyone can call for America to defeat her enemies from a podium in my 'first in the nation' home state of Iowa--indeed, every president that ever was or ever will be has. What does actual "toughness" look like not through the rosy, poetic lens of a campaign, but in the harsh light of governance?

I've had my fair share of disagreements with the Obama Administration's foreign policy. There have been opportunities missed, and ponderous consideration overruling decisive action. I think it is absurd to call the President of the United States a "feckless weakling;" clearly, he is not one. But I do understand when critics bemoan his hesitancy and lack of boldness when it comes to military force. Nonetheless, one issue that candidates from neither political party are talking about where the administration has excelled in pragmatic, results-driven "toughness" is the United States' relationship with China.

China has a bad habit of trying to alter the reality on the ground to fit their interests at the expense of everyone else. By building artificial islands into naval bases throughout the South China Sea, Beijing hopes to increase its territorial waters and better control the maritime traffic of its neighbors throughout the region. But President Obama didn't threaten any asinine, empty promises to "fly Air Force One" over those islands. Instead, he took real action: Sending a USS Destroyer within miles of the so-called islands, and sending the message in no unequivocal terms that the United States will maintain freedom of navigation around the world.

Not everyone likes the TPP--many of my friends on the left aren't a fan of this or that detail in the deal, and their concerns are fair. But the administration's intention in rallying our partners and allies like Japan and the Philippines to a trade deal was rooted in the simple realization that fortune favors those who set the rules of the road. It's easy to lambast about "losing" to China on trade and call every deal a bad one, but the only way to actually "win" is take proactive steps to build the international order in our own image--not bellyache and bloviate about your own negotiating skill.

At the end of the day, "toughness" can't become a constraint on flexibility. We want to ensure that China rises peacefully within the international community's norms--especially as far as our partners and its neighbors are concerned. Sometimes, that's going to mean engaging Beijing on common challenges facing the world. The administration did just that on climate change, securing the first-ever agreement wherein China agreed to set limits on its own conditions. Some folks may think those limits are insufficient, but do they think that threatening or belittling would've gotten a better result? Besides, it's awful hard to be "tough" on climate change if you don't believe in it in the first place.

Just like in any policy area, the Obama Administration hasn't been perfect on China. We've heard quite a bit about their "pivot to Asia," but it hasn't been reflected well in public policy priorities and it feels like a very slow pivot. I'm always looking for our government to do more around the world for better results on human rights, and China is a serious offender. And is often the case with this administration, the wins--like opening up Burma, or bringing Japan and South Korea closer together--have not been well-publicized.

Still, the magnitude of today's world challenges clearly mean that our next commander in chief needs to be "tough"-not in the juvenile chest beating sense, but in the sense of sitting down at the table and pursing the interests of the United States through effective engagement. It seems to me that it is the times in history where force wasn't use to achieve a victory--the fall of the Berlin Wall, the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis--that "toughness" matters just as much as when those times situations that require us to make the hardest call: Putting our men and women in uniform into harms way.

Allies around the world--specifically, close friends and partners like Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines in the Asia-Pacific--will be looking to the United States to continue a legacy of responsible leadership that pushes security and prosperity for all. It is this pursuit of cooperation and partnership that will define the region. The 2016 candidates must to find a sense of "toughness" that goes beyond loose talk if they're going to be able to deliver.