Democratic Candidates Sound Off on China

Democratic presidential candidates from left, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and businessman Tom Steyer.

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Democratic presidential candidates from left, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and businessman Tom Steyer.

Three of the seven 2020 candidates at the debate argued the U.S. needs an international coalition to deal with Beijing.

Democrats called for the U.S. to challenge China more aggressively when asked during Thursday night’s presidential debate to answer one of the most dynamic foreign policy debates in Washington today: how to effectively counter Beijing?

America’s response to threats from Beijing has become a growing concern among national security community that has spilled into mainstream headlines, from Hong Kong protests to high-profile anti-China statements from NBA and Premier League superstars. Three of the seven candidates on stage for the primary debate argued that the United States needs to resist President Donald Trump’s inclination to deal with foreign policy disputes bilaterally and form an international coalition to address China’s military, technology, and economic rise. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who still holds the lead in national polling, cabined his answers to China’s military rise and called for the United States to send 60 percent of its naval assets to the Pacific region to “let the Chinese understand they are not going to go any further” — a callback to the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia.

“We’re not looking for war, but we have to make clear we are a Pacific power and we’re not going to back away,” he said.

Entrepreneur and lawyer Andrew Yang warned that China is outpacing the U.S. technologically, building cell-phones that don’t run on western systems and “leapfrogging” the United States in the development of artificial intelligence technology thanks in part to generous subsidization by Beijing. America, he said, needs to build an international coalition to set technology standards. 

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We actually can’t isolate ourselves from China,” said billionaire Tom Steyer, who argued that the United States doesn’t have the luxury of cutting out China — the two economies are too closely intertwined, he said — and that Washington needs to work with China to effectively combat climate change, the central issue to his campaign. 

That the primary debate’s foreign policy questions dealt so centrally with China reflects the extent to which Beijing has become both a major national security concern on both sides of the aisle in Washington. As China’s dictator Xi Jinping has consolidated his power and sought to expand China’s global influence, the Trump administration has struggled to articulate clear U.S. policy towards a non-democratic country that it trades heavily with but sees as a long-term military threat. In an echo of Obama’s “pivot,” the Trump administration in its 2017 National Defense Strategy called for the U.S. to prioritize “great power competition” with China and Russia over the counterterrorism wars of previous years. 

Although the U.S. concerns with China’s conduct are widely agreed upon — including intellectual property theft, espionage, expansionist military conduct in the South China Sea and onerous restrictions on companies who want to participate in the Chinese market — Trump critics say the administration’s policy answers have come too slowly.

“We have to work with them as a frenemy,” said Steyer, ”people who we disagree with but we are linked to in a world that is ever getting closer.”

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