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Outside the Box: 5 questions about China that Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate needs to answer

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“China’s President Xi Xinping has said that the world is big enough for both China and the United States. The question is what the terms will be.”

On Wednesday, four Republican candidates will take the stage in Tuscaloosa, Ala. for the fourth presidential primary debate. Foreign policy may not be the top issue in American politics, but two-thirds of Republicans say that China poses the greatest foreign threat to the United States. China’s rapid military buildup and human rights abuses are the leading concerns among Republicans, according to a recent poll by the Ronald Reagan Institute.

So it’s important to ask what these 2024 presidential hopefuls would do to address these challenges. Each of the candidates — Ron DeSantisNikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy and Chris Christie — has spoken about how they would handle U.S. relations with China. These speeches, as well as comments from former U.S. president Donald Trump, suggest some major differences among the candidates.

Given how important China is to voters, moderators Eliana Johnson, Megyn Kelly, and Elizabeth Vargas should consider asking the candidates these questions:

1. Would you come to Taiwan’s defense?

American policy toward Taiwan is at a critical juncture as tensions rise with China and voters in Taiwan prepare to go to the polls.

U.S. President Joe Biden has said four times that he would assist Taiwan if it is attacked by China. Trump, on the other hand, has stated that, “Taiwan is like two feet from China. We are eight thousand miles away. If they invade, there isn’t a f—ing thing we can do about it.” Meanwhile, Vivek Ramaswamy has endorsed defending Taiwan but suggested that any commitment to do so should end once the United States achieves semiconductor independence.

When Biden met Chinese President Xi Jinping near San Francisco last month, Xi reportedly warned: “At some point we need to move toward resolution” on Taiwan. So the candidates should be prepared to explain to the American people whether they would fight for Taiwan if it is attacked, and if so, how they would invest in critical defense capabilities to bolster deterrence. 

2. Should the United States respond to China’s escalation around Second Thomas Shoal?

Second Thomas Shoal is a submerged reef located within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea. A small number of Philippine troops live on a boat that is grounded on the reef.

Manila has tried to supply construction materials to fortify the ship, but China’s military, coast guard, and maritime militia have interfered with these efforts. Leaders in Washington and Manila are reportedly considering joint operations to resupply Second Thomas Shoal in the weeks ahead. The United States has a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines that the Trump administration made clear applies to armed attacks on public vessels in the South China Sea, so Beijing’s aggressive actions and its response to such operations could spark a larger crisis.

Voters deserve to know whether each candidate would assist the Philippines or if they see Second Thomas Shoal as a less critical issue. 

3. How would you force China to play by economic rules?

Policymakers have found it particularly difficult to address unfair Chinese economic practices. Trump’s economic approach to China relied on several waves of tariffs to force Beijing to the table. The resulting “Phase One” trade deal, however, failed to change Chinese behavior on state subsidies, intellectual property theft or other key issues.

Nonetheless, Trump claimed victory and Biden left the tariffs in place. Now, Robert Lighthizer, the architect of that strategy and potential adviser in a second Trump term, is advocating higher tariffs on China to force a strategic decoupling. This would be a substantial escalation when compared to the Biden administration’s more targeted de-risking strategy.

Conversely, House Financial Services Committee Chair Patrick McHenry and six other House members recently sent a letter opposing outbound investment restrictions on China. All the candidates are fond of saying they would force China to play by the rules, so voters deserve to know how they would do so.

4. Should Congress ban TikTok?

A perennial question in Washington is whether the social media platform TikTok should be banned. U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris has said that she is “not commenting” on TikTok, possibly due to the app’s popularity with many younger Democratic voters. But the American people deserve to know candidates’ views. Leakage of personal data and censorship are real concerns, but opponents of a ban often cite free speech and government overreach as reasons to leave TikTok as is.

Ramaswamy has used the social media platform to promote his campaign, while Haley, DeSantis and Christie have joined calls to ban the app. Viewers should hear how candidates would address concerns about data leakage and censorship on TikTok and whether candidates would sign a ban into law.

5. Do you support the supplemental package for the Indo-Pacific and other issues?

In October, the Biden administration proposed a $105 billion defense supplemental package that included $61 billion in Ukraine assistance, $14 billion in Israel assistance, $14 billion for U.S. border security, $3 billion for the submarine industrial base, and $7 billion for the Indo-Pacific.

Ukraine aid remains controversial with some Republicans in the House of Representatives, but Speaker Mike Johnson has recently endorsed assisting Ukraine. Where the presidential candidates come out on this critical issue could play a role in building support for the supplemental or torpedoing its prospects, so viewers should watch carefully for comments about the supplemental. This funding is critical not just for Ukraine and Israel, but also for bolstering U.S., ally, and partner defense capabilities in the Indo-Pacific.

Xi has said that the world is big enough for both China and the United States. The question is what the terms will be. Wednesday’s debate could help voters understand what Republicans would do on these key issues if they win the presidency next year.

Zack Cooper is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a lecturer at Princeton University. Connor Fiddler is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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