The Third Debate: 2020 Democratic Candidates on China

(Photo by David J. Phillip/AP)

Rob La Terza

In the September 12 Democratic debate, each candidate was given a chance to express their views on China and the current trade conflict. The candidates unanimously condemned President Trump’s handling of the US-China relationship, but each proposed a different path forward.

(Andrew Yang, center. Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

The discussion opened with entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who was asked whether he would repeal tariffs on his first day in office and whether repealing the tariffs would sacrifice US leverage over China. Yang responded by saying that he would not repeal tariffs on his first day as President and that he would let China know a deal that allays the concerns of American producers and workers must be struck as soon as possible. Yang criticized President Trump’s handling of the trade war, saying, “the tariffs are pummeling producers and farmers in Iowa who have absolutely nothing to do with the imbalances that we have with China.” Although Yang condemned the collateral damage inflicted by the trade conflict, he affirmed that the US has legitimate grievances against China’s conduct, especially intellectual property theft.

(Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Moderator George Stephanopoulos then turned to South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, asking Buttigieg for his thoughts on China. Buttigieg lambasted Trump, saying, “Well, the president clearly has no strategy.” The mayor continued by criticizing Trump for failing to make a deal with President Xi and citing it as “one more example of a commitment not made.” When asked for his plan on trade, Buttigieg either shied away from providing a detailed answer or he did not have one. Buttigieg responded to the question with another rebuke of Trump’s handling of the trade conflict, saying, “Look, what’s going on right now is a president who has reduced the entire China challenge into a question of tariffs, when what we know is that the tariffs are coming down on us more than anybody else and there’s a lack of a bigger strategy.” Buttigieg did not explain what his “bigger strategy” might be if elected. When asked whether he would lift the tariffs, Buttigieg said that he would use the tariffs as leverage. On other facets of the US-China relationship, Buttigieg stated that the Hong Kong protesters “need to know that they have a friend in the United States.”

(Senator Amy Klobuchar, left. Photo by David J. Phillip/AP)

Stephanopoulos questioned Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar next, singling her out as the only candidate on stage to have supported President Trump’s steel tariffs. Klobuchar pushed back, clarifying that she supported “a focused tariff on steel” rather than Trump’s wider approach. She continued by criticizing the harm the trade conflict has inflicted on American farmers and workers, reiterating that she does not support Trump’s widespread use of tariffs, and condemning Trump’s capricious announcement and implementation of policy. She also pointed out the damage the trade conflict has done, saying that 300,000 American jobs have been lost. The senator pledged to “go back to the negotiating table” and to “work with the rest of the world.” Klobuchar concluded her response by saying that her trade policy would be aimed toward “making things, inventing things, and exporting to the world” and stating that Trump is “defeating that goal.”

(Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro. Photo by Mike Blake/Reuters)

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro was asked regarding negotiating with China, “what do you do for leverage? Where do you get it?” Castro did not directly answer the question but stated that he “would immediately begin to negotiate with China to ratchet down that trade war.” The Secretary also stated that as President, he would work towards “ensuring that America leads again on human rights.”

(Senator Elizabeth Warren. Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Stephanopoulos then questioned Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, one of the leading candidates, about the Trans-Pacific Partnership and its weaknesses. Warren’s response was more focused on domestic policy. She lambasted existing US trade policy, saying “So our trade policy in America has been broken for decades, and it has been broken because it works for giant multinational corporations and not for much of anyone else.” Warren stated that she would use China’s desire to access the American market as leverage. The senator implied that as President, she would demand concessions from China before allowing it to sell products in the US, saying, “That means that we have the capacity to say right here in America, you want to come sell goods to American consumers? Then you got to raise your standards. You’ve got to raise your labor standards. You’ve got to raise your environmental standards so our companies can compete on a level playing field.”

(Senator Kamala Harris. Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

When asked how her trade policy would differ from that of former President Barack Obama, California Senator Kamala Harris condemned President Trump’s trade policy as being “erratic” and being conducted via tweet. Harris stated that China has to be held accountable, saying “They steal our products, including our intellectual property. They dump substandard products into our economy.” At the same time, Harris recognized that China and the US must work together on climate change and on North Korea. The senator provided little detail about her trade policy, stating, “When we look at this issue, my trade policy, under a Harris administration, is always going to be about saying, we need to export American products, not American jobs.” Harris clarified that “we need to sell our stuff” and that any trade policy would have to allow export and sale of American goods.

(Senator Bernie Sanders. Photo by David J. Phillip/AP)

Vermont Senator and one of the leading candidates Bernie Sanders did not address China by name, instead reiterating his long-standing opposition to multinational trade agreements such as NAFTA and PNTR because, he argues, they have led to a loss of American manufacturing jobs. Like all the other candidates, the senator stated his strong opposition to Trump’s trade policy, saying, “So Trump, obviously, hasn’t a clue. Trump thinks that trade policy is a tweet at 3 o’clock in the morning.” Sanders stated that he and his opponent, former Vice President and current frontrunner Joe Biden, strongly disagree on trade, leading Stephanopoulos to ask Biden for a response.

(Vice President Joe Biden. Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Vice President Biden called for international action on trade, saying, “Yeah, well, look, we’re either going to make policy or China’s going to make the rules of the road. We make up 25 percent of the world economy. We need another 25 percent to join us.” Biden agreed with Senator Warren in saying that labor and environmentalists must have a say in any trade agreement and clarified that China’s intellectual property theft is the real problem, not trade deficits. The vice president accused China of economic malfeasance, stating, “The problem is they’re violating the WTO. They’re dumping steel on us. That’s a different issue than whether or not they’re dumping agricultural products on us.” Biden concluded his response by arguing that failure to act against China’s improper trade practices in the present would lead to a China-dominated world economy and reiterated his call to unite the world against China’s “corrupt practices.”

(Senator Cory Booker. Photo by David J. Phillip/AP)

Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey was the final candidate to answer, stating that, “We cannot go up against China alone.” Booker criticized Trump’s America First policy as isolating the US and argued that China can only be beaten through collaboration with the US’ traditional allies. Booker’s tone was adversarial, referencing that China must be “beat” rather than arguing for future cooperation.

The debate presented a wide range of perspectives on the US-China relationship. Encouragingly, every candidate came out against the trade war launched by President Trump against China, but some candidates appear to see China as an enemy to be overcome rather than a potential partner. This view is simply wrong. The US and China have collaborated before, such as their partnerships in Africa to combat piracy and Ebola, and can do so again. The partnerships against piracy and Ebola also show how much good the world’s two greatest powers can do when they work together. Neither country can benefit from being adversaries, as we are witnessing in the trade conflict.

The best path forward is for the US and China to resolve their trade dispute as soon as possible and to engage in trilateral cooperation with other countries. Combining the resources and skill sets of the US and China can provide immeasurable benefits to countries requiring assistance, as was evidenced during the Ebola crisis. Over time, we can hope that the US and China’s cooperation will build the goodwill required to engage in dialogue and reach agreements on long-standing issues such as human rights in China and China’s concerns about the US presence in Western Pacific. Regardless of who the next President is, they should take steps to repair the US-China relationship in addition to removing trade barriers.

Rob La Terza is an intern in The Carter Center’s China Program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent those of The Carter Center. 


NBC News. “Full Transcript: Democratic Debate in Houston.” NBC Universal News Group, September 13, 2019.


CNN. “In Pictures: The Third Democratic Debate.” Cable News Network, September 13, 2019.