The Democratic presidential candidates are having a fine time bashing each other on issues like health care and degrees of wokeness, and once they choose a nominee they’ll have a fine time whacking away at Donald Trump, who has demonstrated no hesitancy about lashing back.
For all the inflamed rhetoric spilled so far and all that’s yet to come, there’s one issue that candidates of both parties have spent almost no time debating and aren’t likely to — China.
China, and trade and political relations with it, is a problem for everyone, including the Chinese. The issue of how to deal with China is the single most important economic matter in this campaign.
Climate change, immigration, education or health care? Nope, uh uh, sorry.
What China is doing and what we’re doing about it affect global geopolitical trends and events, and kitchen-table budget issues for virtually every household in this region — and everything in between.
Despite all that, China will be the issue that Trump’s challengers will spend little time on, to the point that it’s a nonissue.
Check out this word salad from supposed front runner Joe Biden:
“First and foremost, we must enforce existing trade laws and invest in the competitiveness of our workers and communities here at home, so that they compete on a level playing field. Then, we need to write the rules of the road for international trade through a modern, inclusive process — rules that protect our workers, safeguard the environment, uphold labor standards and middle-class wages, foster innovation and take on big global challenges like corporate concentration, corruption and climate change. If we don’t, other countries will write the rules for us.”
With a few tweaks, much of that could have been distilled from Trump’s campaign three years ago.
Elizabeth Warren doesn’t like Trump’s proposed rewrite of NAFTA, but there’s no mention on her website of specifics dealing with China. Her campaign did release a lengthy piece “It’s time for a new approach to trade,” but it’s long on process changes and short on specifics about China. Guatemala gets at least as much attention.
And good luck trying to find a mention of China in the issues section of Jay Inslee’s campaign website.
(The topic did get some discussion time at the Detroit debate, with candidates criticizing tariffs and Trump’s handling of trade negotiations, as well as American corporate practices. But specifics as to China’s trade behavior and how to counteract them were scant.)
Not that Trump will get a free pass on the China issue. Trump put together enough votes in the right places by combining Americans’ growing concerns about Chinese economic practices (currency manipulation, market access, offshoring of production, theft of intellectual property) and rhetoric expropriated from years of Democratic fulminations about trade agreements. Just raising the issue gave him an advantage over Republican challengers and Hillary Clinton.
But having raised the issue and having leveraged it to victory, Trump then needed to deliver on it. To date, he hasn’t.
The continuing melodrama of tariffs proposed, enacted and suspended by both sides — with the latest act coming just this past week — hasn’t resulted in a trade deal. There’s still time to reach one, which would be a political advantage for Trump. Failure to do so would be a political advantage for the Democrats, should they care to use it. To date, they haven’t.
This standoff would seem to work to the advantage of China, which can go on doing what it’s doing, letting the American political process grind away, letting the trade negotiations grind away and countering any specific tariffs with retaliatory measures to make the U.S. back down.
But China has its own headaches.
Some U.S. tariffs are in effect and are biting. Buyers already shifting production to less expensive or troublesome sources like Vietnam and Mexico, or even back to the U.S., are accelerating the trend. If the trade disputes go on long enough, shifts to other markets will be permanent. That’s not good news for an economy that, depending on which reports you believe, is showing some indications of weakness.
On top of that are internal and external political troubles, highlighted at the moment by unrest in Hong Kong.
In the past China hasn’t cared much what others think of its policies and practices. Should China forcefully crack down, past performance would suggest the reaction will be bluster and condemnation, and not much else. (And maybe not even that. If you want to watch the candidates really squirm, ask them pointedly and specifically what their response will be if China moves on Hong Kong or Taiwan.)
There already has been much bloviating from the Democrats about Russia and little about China. This is in inverse proportion to economic realities. Outside of some specific sectors, like the European energy markets, Russia doesn’t matter economically.
China does matter.
It matters to what’s going in and out of the Port of Tacoma, whether manufacturers in the Kent Valley can sell their products in domestic and global markets, whether farmers in the Yakima Valley have buyers for their crops and how many airplanes Boeing can churn out at Renton and Everett. If things get nasty enough, the China question will affect what happens with our military installations throughout Western Washington.
Maybe China won’t be the issue that tips voters toward one candidate or another in 2020. It certainly won’t be if all the candidates decide it’s an issue best left to the broadest, vaguest generalities — or not mentioned at all. China is a global and local issue, with personal and national economic security at stake.
Pretending an issue isn’t there won’t make it any less so.