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Democrats Are Allowing Trump to Frame the Debate on China

If they keep speaking the GOP’s language, it will haunt them for years to come.

Have you ever met anyone who’s read the party platform? I haven’t,” the former Republican House Speaker John Boehner said during a 2012 interview about his party’s manifesto. Last week, the Democratic National Committee released a draft of its new platform. But in this case, when it comes to China, the document merits a close read. It shows how dramatically President Donald Trump has reframed the debate about relations with Beijing—and how challenging those terms will prove for Democrats, even if they’re lucky enough to regain power.

The first notable element of the draft platform is how large China looms. In 2016, the Democratic platform mentioned “China” or “Chinese” eight times. This year’s document references the rising superpower and its people 25 times. (By contrast, references to Iran have fallen from 16 to seven.)

The second notable element is the tension, which runs throughout the document, between Democrats’ critique of Trump’s China policies and their insistence that this critique does not render them soft on Beijing. The result is a defensive tone, in which Democrats challenge specific Trump decisions but accept his core narrative that American policy should confront China, not cooperate with it.

Consider the platform’s language on economic engagement with Beijing. Trump has moved to substantially decouple the world’s two largest economies. He has not only boosted tariffs on most Chinese products, but he’s made it harder for American and Chinese individuals and firms to invest in each other’s country. Experts warn that this de-linking could leave the United States substantially poorer, and according to polls, Democrats overwhelmingly oppose it.

But the platform offers no positive argument for trade and investment with China. It never challenges the notion—which Trump is making mainstream in the GOP—that the U.S. would be better if it disengaged economically from Beijing. Instead, it exaggerates the Chinese economic menace in an effort to show that Democrats will prove every bit as tough as Trump; they’ll just be smarter and more multilateral about it. The platform declares that “Democrats will take aggressive action against China or any other country that tries to undercut American manufacturing by manipulating their currencies.” But, according to the International Monetary Fund, China isn’t manipulating its currency. So Democrats are promising to take aggressive action against a problem that likely doesn’t exist—and thus reinforcing Trump’s message that Beijing is an economic menace.

In the document, Democrats promise they will rectify “the damage President Trump’s reckless [trade] policies have done to American farmers.” But they’ll do so “by working with our allies to stand up to China.” Working with allies is fine, but this language accepts Trump’s terms of debate. For years, American farmers have benefited immensely from exporting to China. Trump disrupted that relationship by launching a ruinous trade war. Surely what’s needed now isn’t for Democrats to “stand up” to China but to cooperate with it to rebuild the economic ties on which so many American exporters depend. But when it comes to the economic relationship between Washington and Beijing, Democrats evidently deem the word “cooperate” to be too soft.

The Democrats’ response to the Trump administration’s crackdown on Chinese and Chinese American students and academics—many of whom have been barred from the U.S. or forced from their jobs in ways that evoke the McCarthy era—is similarly backhanded. To its credit, the platform acknowledges that “the openness of our society” is a source of “American strength.” But it then concludes the paragraph by declaring that “undermining those strengths … would be a gift to the Chinese Communist Party.” Even when arguing for preserving America’s openness to Chinese immigrants, students, and researchers, the manifesto justifies that openness in the language of confrontation. The document says a “Cold War” with China would be a “trap,” but, time and again, Democrats fall into that trap in their language.

The platform’s refusal to forcefully advocate cooperation is most striking when it comes to climate change. By far the biggest threat that China poses to the U.S., and the world, is its emission of greenhouse gases. The best way to mitigate that threat is for Washington and Beijing to forge a compact that the rest of the world can join. Yet even here, on a subject Democrats call a “global emergency,” the language of confrontation predominates. While acknowledging that the U.S. should pursue “cooperation on issues of mutual interest like climate change,” the party in the very same sentence promises that the U.S. will “push back” on China’s “malign behavior.” A Joe Biden administration would “mobilize a united front to keep states like China from outsourcing pollution to other countries.” And although the document promises to “come together with Europe to confront the existential challenge of climate change,” it doesn’t define that coming-together as including China, the world’s largest emitter of carbon.

Some of China’s actions—particularly its chilling and monstrous oppression of Uighur Muslims—absolutely merit a vocal and aggressive U.S. response. However, by tacitly accepting the Trump administration’s depiction of China as an enemy and refusing to make an affirmative case for cooperation, Democrats are recreating the dynamic that dogged them in the Cold War.

The officials making China policy in a Biden administration may try to establish a thoughtful balance between working with and against China. But if they don’t challenge the GOP’s exaggerated depiction of the China threat, they will be pushed rightward by the political tides. And like Democratic presidents from Harry Truman to Lyndon B. Johnson to Jimmy Carter, Biden will end up adopting policies that are more hawkish than his advisers consider wise.

On issue after issue, the 2020 platform shows that Democrats want to reframe policy debates in ways that allow fundamental progressive change. But on China, Trump and the Republican Party have reframed the conversation. And if Democrats keep speaking the GOP’s language, it will haunt them for years to come.

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