China has been one of the defining and time-consuming issues of President Donald Trump’s term in office — particularly over the past year. In fact, as we speak, one of Beijing’s most powerful politicians and economic czar, Liu He, is in Washington to seal the first stage of a bruising two-year trade war.
That unprecedented economic conflict, which has resulted in the taxation of nearly all of the commerce between the two countries, has effected American farmers, exporters and others; has remade global supply chains; and has kept the White House’s economic team busy meeting with its Chinese counterparts for round after round of discussion.
The viral video from Trump’s campaign days — the “China, China, China” montage — is flippant but shows that this focus for him isn’t new.
In August, Trump angered Beijing by labeling it a currency manipulator, then abruptly reversed the decision this week. He has called Xi Jinping a “great leader” with whom he has a “great relationship.” He has tweeted about China an astounding 700 times, more than he has about any other foreign country, including Russia, according to the Trump Twitter Archive. He proudly showcased his granddaughter utilizing impressive Chinese-language skills to greet and sing Tang Dynasty poetry to President Xi and his wife.
In short, however you feel about the wisdom of Trump’s China approach, his engagement with the world’s second largest economy — and the only rising power that could rival American supremacy any time soon — has been intense and frequent and has spanned a range of issues.
From the MarketWatch archives (December 2016): Trump risks dispute with China after call with Taiwan president: report
For good or ill, Trump has engaged China more than any other president.
By contrast, the Democratic Party held its seventh presidential debate last night, which covered numerous foreign-policy and economic issues — two areas that often segue into discussions of China. But the Asian rival was scarcely mentioned.
Sen. Bernie Sanders noted that he opposed the 2000 granting to China of permanent normal trade relations. Former Vice President Joseph Biden advised working with our allies in dealing with global issues, including China. Billionaire Tom Steyer, who has an estimated 1% chance of emerging victorious from the primaries, was the lone candidate to say anything concrete about Beijing — that he would scrap Trump’s China tariffs on Day 1 in office.
These were all passing mentions, and the country that has long been our largest (pre–trade war) trading partner, the country whose economy will surpass that of America in at most a generation, and the country that the Pentagon this year said presented “the greatest long-term threat to the U.S. way of life,” never came up again.
In the first debate, in June, candidates were asked what they thought was the biggest geopolitical concern for America. Of the mere three who mentioned China, Julián Castro and Tim Ryan have since dropped out of the race. You may not have even heard of the third, John Delaney, who is currently polling close to zero percent.
Subsequent debates have been similar.
Is it worrying that in the more than 20 hours of Democratic debates, the most important political and economic relationship America will face in the 21st century has largely been an afterthought?
Yes and no. The American people are concerned about immediate issues like health care and wage growth, and (especially for Democratic Party voters) climate change, renewable energy and student debt. There is just too much of genuine importance on other issues for China to consume a huge share of the conversation.
But polls show the issue has grown for Democratic-leaning voters — with big increases in those who see China as a rival or simply unfavorably. Debate moderators — journalists who follow the news and inform the public for a living — should know these trends and query accordingly.
To be clear, the candidates have not completely avoided the topic, or failed to issue grand general statements on the campaign trail about how they will handle China more toughly than Trump has. But the volume of the discussion is disproportionately low, and specific China policies among the Democrats are worryingly vague.
The American public — the world, even — deserves a robust dialogue on China and the Sino-U.S. future. That doesn’t mean heightened confrontation. It likely would pave the way for a more informed path forward for the century’s paramount bilateral relationship.
Tanner Brown is a contributor to MarketWatch and Barron’s and producer of the Caixin-Sinica Business Brief podcast.