A Trump supporter holds a sign during a rally Saturday in Salem, Oregon. Photo: AFP / John Rudoff/Anadolu Agency

Elections are a democracy’s way of deciding big questions and one of the biggest questions facing the United States today is what to do about China. So why do I have an uneasy feeling about China becoming a focus of this year’s presidential election?

Maybe it’s because of the way the question is being framed. It looks like we voters are being asked to decide which candidate will be tougher on China, as if toughness were a policy.

Oh, and of course, we are already being treated to attack ads. The Trump campaign put out one painting Biden as soft on China thanks to his son’s business interests there. Not to be outdone, the Biden campaign ran one saying the president’s tweets complimenting Xi Jinping showed “Trump rolled over for the Chinese.

This is not the debate on China that we need.

To be sure, promises to “get tougher” probably resonate with voters. The electorate’s view of China has turned sharply negative. According to Pew Research Center, in 2005 only 35% of Americans had an unfavorable view of the country. In 2017, when Donald Trump became president, 47% did. Today it’s 66%.

An array of China-related things dismays Americans, from lost jobs to cyberattacks. Pew also found Americans very concerned about China’s impact on the environment, its policies on human rights and its growing military power.

Nor is the anti-China sentiment partisan. Both parties view the Middle Kingdom with suspicion, with 72% of Republicans and 62% of Democrats having unfavorable views.

Covid-19 hasn’t helped. Whether or not President Donald Trump should have dubbed it the “Chinese virus,” China was in fact its place of origin. Heavy-handed attempts by Chinese propagandists to suggest it started in the US likely backfired, adding to anti-China sentiment. In a recent Harris poll, 77% of Americans said Chinese President Xi Jinping is an untrustworthy source of information about the virus.

This being the public’s mood, a 2020 election debate over China policy seems very much in order. But empty “get tougher” rhetoric and name-calling don’t contribute to intelligent voter decisions. What voters need is not sound bites but substance – a discussion of what America’s objectives vis-a-vis China should be and how best to achieve them.

The objective of the “engagement” policy of the 1990s and the aughts was to incorporate a rising China into the US-led international system. The idea was that given a stake in this system, China would play by its rules and move toward embracing Western values of political and economic freedom.

That didn’t happen. Instead, under Xi Jinping, China is both more repressive domestically and more confrontational internationally. People can argue about whether China played by the World Trade Organization rules; the bigger problem is the rules didn’t cover the things China did that Americans consider unfair – things like forced technology transfer, inadequate intellectual property rights enforcement and trade-distorting subsidies.

Question for the candidates: Would rewriting and toughening the rules make sense as a China-policy objective? If so, what’s the more effective way to do that – unilaterally by imposing tariffs and otherwise using American leverage, or in cooperation with allies?

At times President Trump has said he’d be just as happy if the US didn’t trade with China at all.

Covid-19 seems likely to push us in that direction as American manufacturers reorganize supply chains away from China, and not just for medical supplies. Questions for the candidates: Should government policy encourage this “decoupling?” If so, to what extent? Do we really want to stop selling airplanes and semiconductors and soybeans to China?

And what about non-commercial interchanges? During the coronavirus crisis, American doctors and Chinese doctors have exchanged information to mutual benefit. American businesspeople have tapped their contacts in China to locate much-needed supplies of masks and face shields.

Chinese immigrant scientists help American laboratories develop cures and vaccines. Chinese students help American universities keep the lights on. Questions for the candidates: Should the government try to curtail these interchanges? To what extent?

China has been running a global disinformation campaign about Covid-19. As the Washington Post put it, “Its diplomats are demanding that governments offer praise for China’s handling of the epidemic or censor reports on its failings, and they are threatening consequences if their requirements are not met.”

Question for the candidates: Is threatening to retaliate against China for being the source of the coronavirus the best US countermove? If not, what?

(The best theory of Covid-19’s origins remains transmission from an animal in China. There is no evidence that it escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, though that’s a possibility, and no evidence it was created in that laboratory.)

China has thought for years that the real, unspoken objective of America’s policy is to prevent China’s rise. Question for the candidates: Are there any ways we can accept the rise of a nation of 1.4 billion people with an enormous economy and a political ideology diametrically opposed to ours?

Voters need candidates to answer these questions. Granted, voters can only deal with so much complexity; election campaigns must of necessity simplify issues. Still, what we don’t need is dangerous oversimplification.

China policy is too important to be dealt with in attack ads and bland promises of toughness. Maybe we’ll start seeing more substance as the campaign unfolds. We can only hope so. Please, let’s have a real debate on what to do about China.

Former longtime Wall Street Journal Asia correspondent and editor Urban Lehner is editor emeritus of DTN/The Progressive Farmer. This article, originally published May 1 by the latter news organization and now republished by Asia Times with permission, is © Copyright 2020 DTN/The Progressive Farmer. All rights reserved.

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