Don’t Get Trapped Around Trump’s Axle When it Comes to China

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by Francisco Bencosme

In the highly politicized environment of the 2020 elections, politicians across the board are scrambling to portray themselves as just as “tough” on China as Donald Trump claims he is. This approach is misguided and shortsighted.

There is no question that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s method of governing poses an existential challenge to an open society — just look at recent crackdown in Hong Kong. The question that lawmakers, especially Democrats, face is how to build an organizing principle that acknowledges this reality and develops a strategy around it as opposed to one that simply reacts to it in an ad-hoc and inconsistent manner.

When crafting policy in response to the CCP, policymakers should make sure that along with finding areas and opportunities to tackle transnational threats, they are also reinforcing an affirmative agenda that includes protecting human rights, shoring up international and democratic institutions like alliances and multilateral institutions, and curbing corruption and promoting transparency.

The strategic rivalry between the United States and China is a reality that Washington must address, but a subtle reframing of the problem can root U.S. foreign policy strategy in principles that does not drag Democrats into Trump’s morass. Ultimately, framing Democrats’ policy on U.S.-China relations as one of rivalry is not a strategy — it is a tactic. Take the U.S. response to Tik Tok or the expulsion of U.S. news outlets. Both were tit-for-tat measures where the U.S. sanctioned Tik Tok or banned Chinese government outlets as opposed to reinforcing and strengthening the very values, internet and press freedom, they are trying to uphold.

A U.S.-China policy should move beyond the existing rules-based order: it should also prioritize meeting the challenges of the 21st century for example on online governance or on new pandemics. A subset of that larger organizing principle is recognizing that the Chinese Communist Party threatens many of those pillars — international human rights, Bretton Woods, digital freedom, freedom of navigation (as does Trump). Doing so also creates guardrails against developing policies that result in more xenophobia and racism at home.

While competition is inevitable and necessary, it shouldn’t become larger than the sum of its parts.

Strategic focus on principles as opposed to a U.S.-China rivalry allows the U.S. not to conflate goals and tactics, prioritizes areas that actually represent real threats as opposed to distractions, and gives breathing room for management on mutual interests. Instead of funding authoritarian regimes, for example in Vietnam to compete with China, Democrats would remember that part of our ultimate objective is to create more rights-respecting governments.

This approach is also politically advantageous to Democrats. Voters want solutions from their government and an affirmative agenda they can support, not a new Cold War. This approach exposes the fact that tough-on-China GOPers do not have a leg to stand on. The very values and interests the Trump Administration is trying to uphold human rights or sovereignty are belied by the fact that Trump tried to sell the Uyghurs, who are languishing in concentration camps, for a meek trade deal or begging Xi Jinping to interfere in our democratic elections.

In the South China Sea, Republicans have yet to support the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea and openly attacked international law — the very framework the U.S. need to uphold laws and norms in the maritime domain.

Trump’s State Department has tried to ring the alarm about China’s adverse Belt and Road impact on the environment and penchant for corruption as if anyone believes this administration cares about either. The reality is that the Trump Administration has sought to undermine safeguards on the environment as well as on anti-corruption, both at home and abroad. This “strategy” rings hollow and explains why it is reduced to “strategic rivalry.” Policymakers can and should do better.

Finally, the Trump Administration’s xenophobic language around coronavirus has emboldened and green-lighted harassment and attacks against the Asian American community. The propensity for this across the country will only worsen as U.S.-China competition intensifies.

Policymakers have a moral obligation to build guardrails against Trump’s reckless rhetoric and the principles and policies the U.S. chooses to uphold. Unchecked racism, especially when actively perpetuated from the White House, can blind and skew strategic policy priorities and undermine much needed public support for a coherent U.S.-China policy.

Around the world, our allies and partners do not want to be caught in the middle of a Cold War. They would be more open to supporting a rules-based order that protects them as well. Democrats should heed the lessons of the Trump’s failed outreach to Europe on issues of China — competition is not a winning argument and neither is trashing our allies and partners. Likewise, Southeast Asia wants to be a partner on its own-right, not as a footnote in our China policy.

It is easy to let politics and bumper sticker messaging hijack U.S. foreign policy, but that would almost certainly lead to disastrous, unintended consequences. Policymakers should double down on strengthening open societies’ responses to a rival like China as opposed to devoting time to aggressive posturing on China and hoping open societies survive in the end.

Francisco Bencosme is Senior Policy Advisor on Asia and Latin America at Open Society Foundations and a fellow at the Truman National Security Project.

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