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Democrats need a China strategy to replace Trump's aggressive policy

US must unite at home before it can realistically face up to Beijing

| North America
2020 presidential hopeful Joe Biden, speaking in 2015 when he was vice-president, will need to come up with a reality-based strategy to tackle China   © Reuters

Democrats have been battling President Donald Trump on almost every major policy issue ever since the former real estate magnate entered the White House. But on China, arguably America's most consequential foreign policy challenge, Democrats have been strangely cheering their political nemesis from the sidelines.

They have not only embraced Trump's hard line on trade with China, but also appear oblivious to the consequences of the Trump administration's policy of waging a long-term, full-spectrum strategic confrontation with Beijing.

When it comes to China, Democrats have been outmaneuvered by Trump. Beijing is deeply unpopular with the American public. The most recent Pew Research survey reveals that 60% view China unfavorably and 53% think bilateral economic ties are a "bad thing." Only 41% think such ties are a "good thing."

Given the raging trade war, China's aggressive actions in the South China Sea and egregious violations of human rights, it would be political suicide to counsel caution, let alone take a softer line, on Beijing.

But before they cede the China policy completely to Trump and allow him to tout his confrontation with Beijing as a major foreign policy achievement in the 2020 presidential election, Democrats need to think again.

For starters, the Trump administration's current approach is almost certain to lead an open-ended confrontation with China. Antipathy toward China may be widespread in the U.S., but most Americans are not rooting for a new cold war. For Democrats, an avoidable bitter conflict with China will upend their top priorities and challenge their cherished principles.

While alarmed by the rapid growth of Chinese power and Beijing's aggressive behavior under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, Democrats do not necessarily agree with the conclusion of the hawks in the Trump administration that the organizing principle of American grand strategy in the 21st century must be the containment of Chinese power.

Such a struggle would turn the world to a new cold war, with all the foreseeable calamitous consequences. A new arms race would make it impossible to increase investments in health care, education and environment -- all prized priorities of Democrats.

The most important foreign policy goal for Democrats -- leading the world to combat climate change -- will also be endangered as international cooperation on climate change is inconceivable if the U.S. and China, the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases, are themselves locked in an existential geopolitical duel.

Most importantly, in executing its confrontational China policy with unilateralism and little regard for international institutions, norms and interests of allies, the Trump administration has undermined the values Democrats have long held as the defining principles of American foreign policy.

Another reason for Democrats to regain the initiative on China policy, and on American foreign policy in general, is the fact that Trump's China policy is simply not working: it rests on erroneous assumptions and relies on counterproductive tools.

Instead of caving into Trump's pressure, China has dug in its heels, convinced that Washington's hard line has left no room for compromise or accommodation. As a result, the tariff war has not delivered the "deal of the century" Trump seeks.

On the contrary, his escalatory steps now threaten to send global economies, including America's own, into a recession.

The assumption animating the Trump administration's China policy -- that the prospect of China replacing the U.S. as the world's largest economy represents an unacceptable threat to American security -- is subject to challenge as well.

U.S. President Donald Trump, shaking hands with President Xi Jinping, has adopted aggressive yet mistaken policies towards China   © Reuters

This assessment is based on a linear -- and dubious -- projection of China's growth. In all likelihood, Chinese economic dynamism will erode because of its inefficient state-capitalist system and rapid demographic aging. Even more importantly, China's capacity to threaten American leadership will be severely constrained by powerful regional rivals like India and Japan and domestic forces challenging the rule of the Chinese Communist Party.

As long as the U.S. maintains a robust alliance with other democracies, it can safely confront a China that may possess the world's largest economy. Most critically, the real and only existential threat to American security and prosperity is climate change, not projected growth of Chinese power.

Pointing out the obvious flaws and failures of Trump's China policy is not enough. Democrats must offer a realistic and appealing alternative. A Democratic China strategy should prioritize rebuilding strengths at home; define its objectives clearly and realistically; build a broad international coalition; and deal with Beijing pragmatically by seeking cooperation when possible and confronting it when necessary.

To connect this China policy with their domestic priorities, Democrats must pursue an "America First" agenda fundamentally different from the Trumpian version. A Democratic "America First" agenda will give top priority to repairing its frayed democratic institutions, rebuilding its decaying infrastructure, reinvesting in its people and healing a society being torn apart by inequality and racial tensions.

Since America's anxiety about China reflects its declining confidence in its own democratic institutions and economic system more than the threat of Chinese power, Democrats can make a compelling case that the U.S. can prevail in a sustained geopolitical contest with China only if it restores political unity and social peace at home first.

Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and the author of "China's Crony Capitalism," is the inaugural Library of Congress Chair in U.S.-China Relations.

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