This election cycle, one contentious issue which has been at the forefront of the national debate has been America’s foreign policy in regards to China. U.S. relations with mainland China have been a critical issue ever since the recognition of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the 1970s, and in recent years, relations between the two nations have steadily deteriorated.
For several decades, the U.S. treated China as a partner, helping China gain international recognition and encouraging foreign investment into the country. Notably, President Bill Clinton pushed for China’s admission into the World Trade Organization. However, as a consequence of China’s explosive economic growth and its newfound status as the world’s second largest economy, relations in the 2010s began to sour. Beijing has now become the chief economic rival of the United States.
The Trump administration has been marked by its deviance from traditional American views towards China. For all its shortcomings, this administration has recognized that China continues to undercut U.S. interests at every turn, and that it refuses to play by the same set of rules that have defined the postwar world order. China’s continuous intellectual property theft, currency manipulation and censorship of American companies have proven that the PRC acts in bad faith and that it must not be permitted to amass greater influence in the coming years and decades.
Under the leadership of Xi Jinping and the Communist Party, the Chinese government has taken advantage of the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic to engage in open hostility with several countries in the Indo-Pacific region. Just this summer, shots were fired for the first time in almost 50 years across the India-China border as the result of a months-long series of skirmishes between the two countries. Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea resulted in a clash with Vietnam and the sinking of a Vietnamese vessel. In August, China continuously strong-armed Taiwan with war games and military exercises in the Taiwan Strait. China also aggressively promoted disputes with Malaysia and the Philippines over their claims in the Spratly Islands. What has become clear is that the Communist Party has an expansionist, neocolonial vision, and that there must be a plan to counter increasing belligerence from Beijing.
Over the last few years, the Chinese government has also begun a program of systemic detention, internment and “reeducation” of Uighur Muslims in the northwestern province of Xinjiang. Those who are detained are forced to abandon their religion and instead worship the Communist Party. This ridiculous abuse of religious freedom and fundamental human rights is justification enough for swift and robust action on the part of the U.S.
China has proven itself to be an irresponsible player on the world stage, from neocolonial ambitions in the South China Sea to the ethnic cleansing of ethnic and religious minorities.
The current administration has taken some steps to begin to counter this behavior. Though the U.S.-China trade war has thus far been waged by a president who largely acts based on emotion, it is nonetheless a tacit acknowledgment that the U.S. foreign policy establishment ought to shift its traditional view on relations with the PRC. This moment presents a unique opportunity for America. Whoever wins the White House in November should work with liberal democracies in the region such as Japan, India and Australia to provide a counterbalance in Asia and begin to exert serious pressure on Beijing to reform and meet some set requirements: end the Uighur internment and ensure religious freedom on mainland China, cease hostilities with its Asia-Pacific neighbors and engage in fair, rules-based international diplomacy.
The relationship between the United States and China will define the 21st century. History has its eyes on these two countries, and either a Trump or Biden administration will be forced to make the decisions required to stand up to a rising China.