China Policy Profiles: Mayor Pete Buttigieg

Mayor Buttigieg has a resume unlike that of any other major 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, having been a scholar, a soldier, and a mayor. As a college student, Buttigieg attended Harvard University and was a recipient of the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. He has held the office of Mayor of South Bend, Indiana for eight years and was first elected at the age of 29. Buttigieg served as a lieutenant in the Navy Reserve and spent seven months of his tenure as mayor on unpaid leave to deploy to Afghanistan, earning a Joint Service Commendation Medal for his work against terrorism. Despite this extensive resume, Buttigieg’s career has been in local government, giving him little experience with China. 

During the third Democratic debate, Mayor Pete forcefully condemned President Trump’s China policy, saying “the president clearly has no strategy,” and failed to make a deal with China’s President Xi. Buttigieg also lambasted Trump’s failure to stand with pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. However, Buttigieg offered little detail of his own planned China strategy. When asked if he would repeal Trump’s tariffs, Buttigieg said, “I would have a strategy that would include the tariffs as leverage, but it’s not about the tariffs.” Buttigieg concluded his remarks by saying that the tariffs hurt the US more than anyone else and reiterating his belief that President Trump’s administration lacks an overall strategy.  

In the fifth Democratic debate, Buttigieg continued to forcefully state his opposition to the trade war, saying “it shouldn’t have been started in the first place.” He pledged to “fix the trade war,” though he did not explain how he would do so. The mayor also emphasized the US’ need to “re-prioritize our budget as a whole and our military spending in particular.” He highlighted the need to keep up with China in developing advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, saying, “If we fall behind on artificial intelligence, the most expensive ships that the United States is building just turned into bigger targets.” Buttigieg concluded his remarks by criticizing President Trump’s national security strategy as “relying on 17th century technologies like a moat full of alligators or a big wall,” and stating that a “21st century strategy” is needed.

On June 11, 2019, Buttigieg delivered his most detailed foreign policy speech to date at Indiana University’s Bloomington campus. Again, Buttigieg laid out criticisms of current and previous US strategies on China, saying that the US “will not be able to meet this challenge by sticking to a 20th-century strategy” but offered few details about his own plan. Mayor Pete criticized China as representing “the international expansion of authoritarian capitalism,” and as “developing a repressive digital surveillance state.” Buttigieg highlighted the Uighur “re-education camps” in Xinjiang and China’s growing influence through the Belt and Road Initiative as areas of concern. While Buttigieg agreed that the US and China can cooperate on climate change and international counterterrorism and peacekeeping operations, he tempered his remarks by saying that the US “must be prepared to defend our values, interests, and relationships.” Buttigieg proposed that the US counter China through improving its “domestic competitiveness and stability,” maintaining conventional military capability to deter Chinese “adventurism,” investing in strategies to counter “less overt threats” such as “political interference, proxy wars, cyberattacks, and the potential weaponization of economic and technical interdependence.” The mayor emphasized the importance of domestic policy in relations to foreign policy, pointing out that strength is also “our power of inspiration.” Buttigieg argued that the US must be willing to invest in “education, infrastructure, health, and technology” to serve as a model for the rest of the world. Additionally, the US must uphold its free press and protection of human rights in order to ensure that it can credibly stand for the free press and human rights abroad. By doing so, Buttigieg hopes to present the US and the American way as a preferred alternative to China and its model.  

Commentators criticized the speech for failing to offer concrete explanations of how Buttigieg intends to meet the challenge of China’s growing power and influence. While Buttigieg presented his vision for how the US should present itself as an alternative to China, he did not offer a strategy to resolve the trade dispute or to improve bilateral China-US relations. Buttigieg revealed more of his views on China in an interview with George Packer of The Atlantic, saying that he views China as an ideological rival as well as an economic one. Buttigieg argued that American values must “be vindicated globally” to prevent the spread of Chinese-patterned authoritarianism.  

When answering foreign policy questions from the Council on Foreign Relations, Buttigieg reiterated his belief that China is engaging in a “systems competition” with the US. In response to the prompt, “How, if at all, should China’s treatment of the Uighurs and the situation in Hong Kong affect broader U.S. policy toward China?” Buttigieg wrote, “The Chinese Communist Party’s repressive treatment of the Uighurs and other minorities, and growing pressure on Hong Kong, are symptomatic of a broader, and intensifying, ‘systems’ competition. Beijing seems committed to consolidating and legitimizing authoritarian capitalism as an alternative to the democratic capitalism embraced by the United States and its closest allies and partners.” Mayor Pete tried to strike a middle ground, repeating the statement he made in his foreign policy speech- that cooperation with China is desired and necessary in some areas, but that the US must defend its values, interests, and alliances. Buttigieg elaborated that the US must accept that “this will often entail friction with China.” He also repeated his condemnation of past American policy on China, writing that “For too long we have underestimated China’s ambitions while overestimating our ability to shape them.” Buttigieg’s proposed path forward included domestic reform, protecting other countries from outside political interference, and strengthening alliances so the US and its allies can place combined pressure on Beijing to improve its human rights and trade practices. The mayor also noted that the US should take precautions such as “realigning defense and other national security investments to reflect China’s military modernization and full-spectrum statecraft” and “reducing vulnerabilities from economic interdependence by disentangling the most sensitive sectors of our economies,” and “ensuring that American and allied resources and technologies do not underpin authoritarian oppression and surveillance.”  

When asked about whether the US should join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), Buttigieg’s answer included another glimpse of his China policy. Buttigieg called on the US to act to prevent China from dominating Asian markets, which Buttigieg called the fastest-growing in the world. Mayor Pete warned that BRI agreements “favor China’s economy and workers” and “enshrine non-democratic principles at the expense of the US and free people.” In the future, Buttigieg wants the US to set “the rules of the road for the future, so that strategic and economic competition with China happens on our terms.”        

Overall, Buttigieg’s China policy lacks the detail that frontrunners such as Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren have provided. However, between interviews, debates, and materials posted to his website, Buttigieg offers enough information for observers to infer what a President Buttigieg’s China policy could look like. In comparison to his Democratic competitors, Buttigieg is far less conciliatory than Biden and both more and less antagonistic towards China than Warren, depending on what aspect of the relationship one considers. On trade, Buttigieg is more conciliatory than Warren, but on ideology, Buttigieg’s stance is more aggressive than Warren’s. The mayor has left room for cooperation with China in his public statements, but his belief that the US and China are in an ideological conflict will most likely lead to increased tensions. The overall direction under a Buttigieg presidency appears similar to the early Cold War period between the US and the Soviet Union- two great powers opposed to each other’s ideologies, with little common ground apart from global consensus issues such as working against climate change, piracy, and terrorism. Buttigieg’s views on China are less extreme than American views on the USSR after the Second World War, but the common element of ideological “systems” opposition is ominous. Although it may not bode well for US-China relations under a Buttigieg presidency, his description of the relationship as a “systems competition” is accurate in that China is attempting to prove that its brand of authoritarian capitalism is superior to the US’ democratic capitalism, a distinction that other Democratic candidates have not drawn as clearly. Buttigieg also correctly labels the BRI and China’s efforts to displace the US as seeking to promote China’s authoritarian system. Along with his spelling out the US-China rivalry, Buttigieg’s desire to partially decouple the US and Chinese economies will also chill relations. Instead of seeking to decouple the US and Chinese economies, the next president should strengthen ties. While Buttigieg is rightly concerned about Chinese technology theft, greater cooperation between the US and China decreases the probability of either a cold or hot war. China’s intellectual property theft is a global concern and should therefore be addressed in multilateral negotiations rather than through decoupling segments of the US and Chinese economies. Through cooperation, the US may be able to achieve close enough diplomatic relations with China to gradually improve China’s human rights practices. The US can also promote democracy through working to improve the world, including by cooperating with China, rather than letting China win global acclaim with the BRI and not responding in kind.