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They have a point!
Reuters published a story Thursday examining the increasingly hawkish stance toward China taken by the top GOP presidential candidates on the campaign trail, noting that several of them are now calling for an end to China’s normalized trade status.
Now, presidential candidates of either party talking tough on China during a campaign isn’t actually groundbreaking. Here’s a number of the 2016 presidential candidates calling for action on China, led by eventual President Donald Trump. Going back further to 2008, here’s eventual President Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) taking jabs at each other over China. And if you want to go even further back, here’s future President George W. Bush going after then President Bill Clinton, arguing the 42nd president “made a mistake [in] calling China a strategic partner.”
So yeah, presidential candidates of both parties have always tended to talk tough on China during the campaign. But, that tough talk would evaporate once the winner took office. New presidents seemed to play nice with Chinese officials, leading to policy blunders like striking agreements with China’s government that didn’t typically work out.
But in recent years, the presidential rhetoric toward China has gotten tougher — and more importantly, the rhetoric has been followed by action. During his time in office, Trump cozied up to Chinese leader Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, but his administration also issued major tariffs on Chinese imports. The Trump administration enacted a shift in U.S.-China policy.
After Trump lost re-election, there were questions about whether new President Joe Biden might reverse course back toward a more China-friendly policy. But, the opposite happened.
Which brings us back to the 2024 campaign. With new data showing Americans increasingly identifying China as our No. 1 threat, it is likely that Biden will tout his efforts to counter the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and “win the competition of the 21st century,” as he likes to call it. Given the rhetoric we are seeing right now, Republican candidates will almost certainly go after him for not being tough enough on China.
As Reuters reports:
The line of attack being embraced by the Republican candidates is that China is not merely a national security threat, like Russia or Iran, but also a top economic threat, and that decoupling the U.S. economy from China is key to the nation’s economic health…
In addition to outdoing each other, the Republican candidates are trying to prove to the public they will be tougher than President Joe Biden, who has himself rolled out a series of new rules and orders aimed at limiting Chinese access to U.S. markets.
One way the GOP candidates appear to be taking on Biden is by supporting an end to China’s permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status. Several of the leading Republican presidential candidates — Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley — have said they’d revoke China’s permanent normal trade relations status if elected. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) already voted to do so.
The candidates aren’t alone in their support for revoking PNTR. A Morning Consult poll conducted for AAM earlier this year found 57% of Americans back doing so. The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission formally called for doing so in its most recent annual report, and legislation also has been introduced on Capitol Hill to revoke China’s PNTR.
And there is very recent precedent for revoking permanent normal trade relations status. The United States did just that in 2022 with Russia following that country’s unjustified invasion of Ukraine.
AAM President Scott Paul outlined a whole bunch of reasons why it’s a smart move to revoke China’s trade status in a recent op-ed, pointing out that China has met none of the commitments it agreed to when it was granted the status in 2001. Instead:
“The ruling Chinese Communist Party has turned inward, away from the promised economic reform and liberalization that it never seriously attempted in the first place. And, while plenty of U.S. leaders have stood idly by, American industrial communities have experienced job losses, deaths of despair and economic decline as China’s unfair trade practices took their toll. And that experience has been capped by a black swan event, the COVID-19 pandemic, which revealed just how unprepared as a nation we are if we’re dependent on production in China for critical goods.”
There are a lot of other important issues being talked about on the campaign trail — the Jan. 6 insurrection and Trump’s role in it among them — but China is likely to remain a hot topic throughout the campaign, and for good reason. Revoking PNTR is a clear policy goal that begins to undo some of the incredible damage done to our national and economic security over the past 20+ years. Allowing China to continue to enjoy normalized trade relations at a time when we are spending billions to compete with China is irresponsible.
In any case, expect to hear more about China’s trade status in the coming months.