Foreign Policy Digital

How Democrats Can Get Tough on China—Without Imitating Trump

The current White House has legitimate concerns but counterproductive solutions.

Whatever U.S. President Donald Trump is for, Democrats are against, and vice versa—that’s a pretty good rule of thumb in the U.S. foreign-policy debate today. For example, the more Trump aligns himself with the positions of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the more vocal Democrats have become in their criticism of those leaders. Conversely, the more Trump attacks NATO, financial assistance to Central America, or former President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, the more enthusiastically Democrats seem to support them. The substantive differences are genuine, but they are magnified by the politics of opposing Trump.

A glaring exception to the rule, however, appears to be U.S. policy toward China. Far from distancing themselves from Trump’s confrontational, populist approach, many Democrats— especially candidates for the 2020 presidential nomination—appear tempted to echo it. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, for example, said that China had “weaponized its economy” and complained about “misdirected” previous presidents telling a “happy-face story [on China] that never fit with the facts.” Sen. Cory Booker called the Chinese government a “totalitarian regime” that has been “taking advantage of this country” and said, “We need to fight them.” On June 11, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg joined the fray, calling China’s ideological model “the perfection of dictatorship” and admitting that “there’s something about [Trump’s] orientation on China that I think is not completely wrong.”

When former Vice President Joe Biden, the current the notion that China was going to “eat our lunch”—an apparent attempt to express confidence in U.S. workers—he found himself under assault from Trump and Democrats alike and quickly retreated, , “We are in competition with China” and “need to get tough.” In the Senate, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and other leading Democrats have on the administration to “stay aggressive” in trade negotiations. When Trump recently threatened to escalate tariffs on China as part of his trade war, falsely claiming that China was bearing most of the costs of the tariffs, Schumer not only declined to correct him, but also , “Hang tough on China, President @realDonaldTrump. Don’t back down.”

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