There was a post-superpower quality to this week’s Democratic debates. On both nights, foreign policy came up near the end, and the discussion focused mostly on the need to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, avoid war with Iran and, in Michael Bennet’s words, “invest in America again.” That’s fine, as far as it goes. But there was strikingly little discussion about America’s role in upholding a particular balance of power in the world. It was almost as if these Democratic candidates were running for prime minister of Canada.
That’s a problem, because the United States is trying to uphold a particular balance of power, even as the economic and military might of China keeps growing. Washington is now pursuing roughly the same grand strategy that ended in war with Japan in 1941: preventing any single Asian power from dominating the Western Pacific. China is challenging that effort. And unless the world’s two superpowers accommodate each other, that challenge could lead to war.
What kind of accommodations would Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, or Joe Biden make to avoid that? Would they fight for Taiwan or for American access through the South China Sea, the two places where World War III is most likely to break out? No debate watcher would have any idea. China came up 16 times during Tuesday night’s debate—every time in the context of trade. But in the section of the evening devoted to national security, it wasn’t mentioned once. Things were much the same on Wednesday night: eight mentions of China, seven about trade and one stray reference by Tulsi Gabbard to “nuclear-armed countries like Russia and China and North Korea.”
To treat great-power competition as an afterthought is irresponsible, even dangerous. In 2015, Graham Allison, a longtime student of American foreign policy, wrote, “War between the United States and China in the decades ahead is … much more likely than recognized at the moment. Indeed, judging by the historical record, war is more likely than not.” His analysis emerged from a historical study of interactions between established and rising powers, two-thirds of which have ended in military conflict. In 2016, Steve Bannon put it more unequivocally: “We’re going to war in the South China Sea in the next five to 10 years … There’s no doubt about that.”
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Since Donald Trump took office, he has made Bannon’s prediction more likely. The United States has officially designated China a “strategic competitor.” American warships are sailing more frequently through the Taiwan Strait even as Beijing warns more forcefully that it is willing to use force to reintegrate the island into China. Dialogue between the American and Chinese militaries has largely collapsed. Beijing is increasingly harassing and detaining American citizens. And the U.S.-China economic relationship, which once kept hostility between the two superpowers in check, is now contributing to the animosity. Last month, some of America’s leading China scholars published an open letter to the president and Congress warning of a dangerous “downward spiral in relations” between the two most powerful nations on Earth.
It’s easy to see why Democrats don’t talk much about America’s political and military relationship with Beijing. Trade with China directly affects ordinary Americans. East Asian geopolitics, by contrast, sounds remote and obscure. But the two issues are deeply intertwined, as the Obama administration recognized when it negotiated the Trans-Pacific Partnership to deepen America’s Asian alliances and prevent China from creating regional blocs that exiled the United States. The current Democratic debate doesn’t recognize that. This week, for instance, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts rolled out her trade policy, which would require that any new trade deals meet high standards for labor, environmental, and human rights. Those are wonderful aspirations. But Beijing is extremely unlikely to meet them, which means Warren is prepared to make the current trade war with Beijing permanent, thus removing the economic guardrails that have helped keep military competition in the Pacific from spiraling out of control. That’s the problem with unveiling a trade policy when you don’t have a broader China policy.
While Democrats ignore the growing cold war with China, Republicans are embracing it. For younger Republicans like Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton, who want to fuse Trump’s populist rhetoric on trade with their own hawkishness on military matters, China is the perfect answer. It’s the place where Trumpism and neoconservatism meet. Bannon earlier this year helped reconstitute the Committee on the Present Danger, first created to scare Americans about the Soviet threat in the 1970s, in order to do the same about China.
But the Cold War with the Soviet Union stayed cold in part because in central Europe, where it really mattered, the Soviet Union lacked the will to fundamentally challenge the division of Europe that ran through Berlin. In Eastern Europe, the U.S.S.R. already had its sphere of influence and lacked the economic vigor to try to expand it. China, by contrast, is a rising power that doesn’t yet have a military sphere of influence. It’s trying to create one in places like the South China Sea, where Chinese and American warships came within 45 yards of colliding last September. And it sees reacquiring Taiwan as its national destiny, even as Rubio and Cotton propose ever closer military ties between Taipei and the United States.
In the past, Allison has argued, avoiding war between established and rising powers “required huge, painful adjustments in attitudes and actions on the part not just of the challenger but also the challenged.” Republicans want to do exactly the opposite: Ensure that America doesn’t give China an inch. The Democrats onstage Tuesday and Wednesday, for their part, said almost nothing at all.
That might be okay if the United States were Canada. But the next president will make decisions that could determine whether there’s a World War III. And right now an American watching the Democratic presidential campaign would have no idea there’s any risk at all.