The flurry of China-bashing attacks in the presidential campaign over the last month reminded me that just earlier this year it seemed as if none of the candidates had anything to say about China. Peter Beinart wondered where the China hawks were, and I pointed out where some of them were, but his larger point that China and China policy were being neglected in the debates here in the U.S. was correct. Now virtually the entire Republican field has rediscovered the value of China-bashing, and several candidates have recently become very vocal about their desire to confront China and their dissatisfaction with Obama’s handling of the relationship.
What changed in just the last few months? One change is simply that there now many more declared candidates than there were earlier in the year, so there weren’t that many candidates in a position to demand a “tougher” China policy in the first half of the year. By the end of the summer, all of the candidates that were going to declare had done so. Trump’s entry and his rhetoric about the need to “beat China” started a competition among the GOP candidates to show how “tough” on China they could be. Another change is that China and U.S.-China relations have been in the news more often recently, which has given the candidates fodder for their attacks. The report of the OPM hack provided hawks with a perfect opportunity to attack China over its presumed espionage. The sharp drop in Chinese markets last month gave them another opening to demagogue the issue, though this was mostly to their own embarrassment. The Chinese president’s state visit also presented the candidates with another ready-made occasion to push for a more confrontational approach. While this has led some of them to advertise their contempt for diplomacy, it has also given them an excuse to propose more aggressive measures in the South China Sea.
As I said in my previous post in June, there is actually very little support among political leaders or the general public for a much more confrontational China policy, but many of the Republican candidates don’t seem to know that.