Comment: Republican race is on to win ‘Toughest on China’ title

With U.S.-China relations likely to remain on edge, count on 2024 candidates to tout their attracks of China.

By Jim Geraghty / Special To The Washington Post

Judging from China’s saber-rattling about Taiwan and combativeness toward the United States, including sending the occasional spy balloon floating overhead, the Chinese government under Xi Jinping is not going to suddenly start playing nice between now and the 2024 primaries or general election. As a result, Republican candidates for the 2024 presidential nod, and the eventual nominee, are likely to spend a lot of time claiming to be the toughest on China.

Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who’s contemplating a presidential run, has a book out called “Never Give an Inch,” an account of his years in the Donald Trump administration that could double as a calling card for Republican voters. Three-quarters of the way through, he offers a particularly unflattering portrait of Trump — his former boss and potential rival for the 2024 nomination — and a glimpse of the author’s attitude toward China.

Pompeo writes that a speech he gave in 2020 — accusing the Chinese Communist Party of repeatedly delaying sharing critical information about the coronavirus and trying to obscure China’s role in a global disaster — infuriated Chinese President Xi Jinping, who picked up the phone and gave Trump an earful.

Trump in turn gave Pompeo an earful, the author says, telling him that angering Xi endangered supplies of personal protective equipment from China and “our trade deal,” adding, “Stop, for God’s sake!”

Pompeo notes that if you review his public remarks in the following weeks, he dutifully followed Trump’s command. But, he adds, “I was not happy that the president had tweeted that the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) was doing a good job on the virus” and had heaped praise on Xi. Pompeo writes that he understood the circumstances — particularly U.S. reliance on Chinese PPE exports — but you can almost see him fuming: “Accountability matters too much; and let’s never forget that Xi threatened American lives by withholding potentially life-saving materials simply because I spoke the truth.”

If Pompeo runs, he’ll have the standing to argue that Trump wasn’t tough enough on China, pointing to anecdotes such as that one; and he likely won’t be alone in the argument. Another person who served in the Trump administration and is thinking about a presidential campaign, former national security adviser John Bolton, contended in a Wall Street Journal excerpt of his own White House memoir that Trump “pleaded with Chinese leader Xi Jinping for domestic political help” and “subordinated national-security issues to his own reelection prospects.”

What about former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who plans to officially announce her 2024 candidacy on Feb. 15? She can point to her (sometimes unsuccessful) work to oppose China’s global influence while serving as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the Trump administration.

If Trump gets up on some presidential debate stage and claims that no one was tougher on China than he was, Democrats would have to take a number and get in line behind Pompeo, Bolton and Haley in their rebuttals.

Also note that while you might not think that the governor of Florida has much of a role in U.S. foreign policy, Ron DeSantis — another likely 2024 candidate — can point to state-level initiatives prohibiting land purchases by Chinese entities, barring state contracts with Chinese technology firms, and stopping Florida colleges and universities from accepting gifts from foreign entities.

Just about anyone with GOP leadership aspirations will want to be able to point to a long-standing wariness of China.

If President Biden is the Democratic nominee next year, he will be judged on his own record with China, and he’ll have successes to point to, most notably his robust effort to deny China access to powerful advanced semiconductors and the tools to manufacture them.

But there’s no denying Biden was something of a Johnny-come-lately to the tough-on-China position, with his 2019 assertions such as “They’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us,” and “No other nation can catch us, including China. I got criticized for saying that.” And his performance during the Chinese spy balloon episode has provided grist for Republican critics. Last week, before Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken finally acted, Haley tweeted: “Shoot down the balloon. Cancel Blinken’s trip. Hold China accountable. Biden is letting China walk all over us. It’s time to make America strong again.”

According to Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in late December, Biden intended in the new year to “maintain open lines of communication” with Beijing and “build on” a “productive discussion” Biden had with Xi in November. The likelihood of that happening has plummeted faster than the spy balloon off the South Carolina coast.

Biden wants stability, predictability and a reduction in tensions with China. He might still be operating on memories of his dealings, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, who dramatically opened up China to the West in the 1990s. That was a long time ago, and Zemin’s era has little in common with Xi’s reign. There’s room for a Republican challenger to argue that Biden’s instincts on China are old, tired and far too trusting.

Jim Geraghty is National Review’s senior political correspondent.

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