Where do the 2016 US Presidential Candidates Stand on China?

This post was written by Project Pengyou intern, Megan Cansfield, and is not intended to reflect any political bias. It is intended as a primer tool for Pengyous to learn more about the 2016 Presidential candidate’s views on China.


2016 candidates
The leading candidates in the 2016 elections: (L-R) Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

With the conclusion of Super Tuesday and the next round of states set to hold primaries today on March 15th, the race for the world’s most powerful elected office is now fully under way. Although the elections usually focus attention on the candidates’ viewpoints and policy proposals, rarely has the relevance of foreign policy been as important as it is in this election cycle, especially in regards to China.

America’s next president will be tasked with navigating a dynamic and delicately balanced relationship with China at a time of unpredictable changes and complex circumstances. A host of critical issues, from ensuring stability in East Asia, protecting US national security, and maintaining economic growth through trade to combating global threats like climate change or nuclear proliferation, all depend on cooperation between the US and China. The US president holds a lot of power and influence in shaping the next phase of US-China relations regarding all these issues.

To help make sense of what the future of US policy towards China could look like after the 2016 election, we’ve assembled a list of profiles for the front-running candidates and how they plan to engage – or oppose – China during their potential presidency.

Democratic Party Candidates

 1. Hillary Clinton

“Today, China represents one of the most challenging and consequential bilateral relationships the United States has ever had to manage.” – October 11, 2011

Background: Former Secretary of State (2009-2013), Former New York Senator (2001-2009)

As Secretary of State under President Obama, Hillary Clinton helped engineer the US diplomatic “pivot to Asia”, a rebalancing of America’s foreign relations to emphasize engaging the Asia-Pacific region and particularly China. Clinton maintains that the US must work to limit competition with China and instead cultivate trust and cooperation on international issues of common interest.

Positions on China: 

  1. Military: Clinton has opposed China’s island-building and territorial claims in the South China Sea, commenting that America should reaffirm regional alliances to safeguard freedom of navigation and international law. She advocates US restraint from direct involvement in disputes, encouraging involved parties to negotiate multilaterally through regional organizations such as ASEAN rather than facing China unilaterally with US support assumed.
  2. Economic: Clinton opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a multilateral agreement to expand free trade and economic ties between the US and other Asia-Pacific nations excluding China. She originally favored the agreement but retracted her support following new currency manipulation enforcement measures and benefits to pharmaceutical companies added during negotiations. Unlike Bernie Sanders, who spurns all free trade deals for harming the domestic labor force, Clinton generally supports other trade agreements but with some conditions.
  3. Social Issues: Clinton is known for criticizing China on humanitarian grounds for human rights, women’s rights and political violence in Tibet, and has incorporated these factors into some policy suggestions.

2. Bernie Sanders

 “I voted against [permanent normal trade relations] with China, that was the right vote, and if elected president I will radically transform trade policies.” – July 28, 2015

Background: Vermont Senator (2007-2016), Former Vermont Representative (1990-2007)

Positions on China:

  1. Economic: Bernie Sanders’ China policy focuses on US-China trade relations. He believes that current trade rules unfairly advantage China and harm American interests. Sanders opposes all free trade agreements like the TPP because he says they allow Chinese firms to outcompete their American counterparts under weaker regulations, hurting American industries and outsourcing jobs. Sanders considers open trade with China harmful to the US economy by increasing unemployment and wealth inequality. He opposes Permanent Normal Trade Relations status with China and favors fees and tariffs on Chinese imports to deter currency manipulation.
  2. Military: Sanders opposes China’s military build-up as counter to US interests. He would strengthen the US position relative to China through sanctions on arms sales and dealer states rather than displays of military force.
  3. Social Issues: Sanders criticizes China’s human rights violations in Tibet and nationwide. He has supported legislation condemning these abuses and encouraged dialogue between the Chinese leadership and the Dalai Lama on religious and cultural autonomy. He would again raise these concerns when addressing China as president.


Republican Party Candidates 

3. Donald Trump

“If China [doesn’t] come to the table, they’re going to have a tax when they put their products into this country. And they’re going to behave.” – September 27, 2015

Background: Billionaire and Real Estate Mogul

Donald Trump’s foreign policy is based on a strong US role in global affairs through projection of force. Trump says he would be a tough negotiator on China as president, specifically towards the US-China trade imbalance. Trump claims he would not fear using military might to resolve foreign affairs issues and takes an antagonistic approach to China overall, viewing US-China relations as a zero-sum competition that the US cannot lose.

Positions on China:

  1. Economic: Trump promises to resist trade inequity and deficit with China by officially declaring China a currency manipulator for its devaluation of the yuan, denouncing export subsidies and imposing a 45% tariff on Chinese exports. This policy is criticized by trade experts who state that restricted trade will ultimately burden the US and negatively impact the whole international trade system due to the volume and central importance of US-China trade.
  2. North Korea: Trump solely blames China for nuclear proliferation and instability in North Korea. He says China has “absolute control” of North Korea, so he would pressure China to take responsibility for stopping North Korea’s nuclear progress by threatening US sanctions and other consequences.
  3. Cybersecurity: Trump advocates a “zero tolerance policy” towards Chinese theft of US intellectual property.

4. Ted Cruz

“China is on a campaign of territorial expansion, the intent of which is to kick America out of the Pacific.” – April 13, 2015

Background: Texas Senator (2012-2016)  

Like Trump, Ted Cruz envisions a stronger US military more involved in East Asia and worldwide to protect national security. Cruz adopts a confrontational view of China as a threat to the US through its rising power.

Positions on China:

  1. Military: Cruz preaches a “peace through strength” approach, explaining that China will only respect and respond to direct engagement. Cruz advocates supporting regional allies like Taiwan with arms deals to counter China’s power.
  2. Cybersecurity: Cruz also favors a stronger response to Chinese cyberattacks on US government information and business intellectual property targets with swift and decisive counterattacks.
  3. Economic: Cruz opposes the TPP agreement for its potential to undermine the US’s economic strength and trade relative to China, thus harming US interests.
  4. Social Issues: Cruz says the US must take a stronger stance to confront China on suspicions of human rights abuses.

5. Marco Rubio

UPDATE: Rubio suspended his presidential campaign on March 15th following his loss in the Florida primary.

“If China continues to use military force to advance its illegitimate territorial claims, as it has in the South China Sea and elsewhere, I will not hesitate to take action.” – August 28, 2015 

Background: Florida Senator (2010-2016)

Marco Rubio’s outlook on China is more hawkish than other candidates. Rubio has named China a “strategic competitor” and potential “adversary” for military involvement in the Asia-Pacific. He has also called China a “source of instability created by tyranny”.

Positions on China:

  1. Military: Rubio insists on the need for greater military muscle in US engagement with China because just increasing trade cannot change what Rubio interprets as China’s aggressive posture in the South China Sea. Rubio’s three-point plan on China would reinforce military ties with Asia-Pacific allies to counter China’s military presence there.
  2. Economic: Rubio supports the TPP agreement, calling it a “step in the right direction.” Rubio’s China plan would respond more assertively to China’s “protectionist” economic and trade policies including export subsidies, import barriers, and currency devaluation.
  3. Social Issues: Rubio emphasizes human rights in engaging with China and supports including these values in the US demands and official stances on US-China affairs. He lists diplomacy and visa bans on Chinese officials as ways to challenge human rights abuses in China.

6. John Kasich

“We can continue to maintain a decent relationship [with China], but they don’t own the South China Sea…We ought to send some forces in there to make it clear that they don’t own it.” – July 26, 2015

Background: Ohio Governor (2010-2016), former Ohio Representative (1983-2000)

Like other conservative candidates, John Kasich advocates a stronger US stance against China. 

Positions on China:

  1. Economic: Kasich has spoken out against China’s currency manipulation and its unequal playing field in world markets. He supports the TPP, claiming it economically good for America and will strengthen US national security by “build[ing] strategic alliances against China”.
  2. Military: Kasich supports displaying US military force in the South China Sea and increasing ship or plane deployments to US bases in the Pacific. He expects this policy to guard against China’s destabilizing territorial expansion through artificial island-building and to protect US regional allies and economic interests from increased Chinese military presence.

Pengyous, how will the candidate’s views on China affect your voting decisions? What are your thoughts on China’s role in the election? Start the discussion by sharing your comments below!

Sources: Images from OneIndia, Pathankot City, Inquisitr, The Blaze, Nanopress, Slate, The Columbus Dispatch.