China Policy Profiles: Representative Beto O’Rourke

After an ultimately unsuccessful bid for Ted Cruz’s Texas seat in the Senate, Beto O’Rourke turned his sights on the Presidency and has consistently challenged President Trump’s position on trade. In August, O’Rourke’s campaign posted an article addressing the U.S.-China trade relationship and outlining the changes his Presidency intends to pursue. O’Rourke’s position can be summarized through the following: first, ending the trade war with China, and second, defend American interests against China.  

Although O’Rourke describes China as a competitor, his campaign has made clear that O’Rourke would end the trade war with China on the first day of assuming the Presidency. O’Rourke argues that China has taken numerous anti-competitive actions that disadvantage the United States, and has failed to make good on promises the nation made when it acceded to the WTO in 2001. These actions include “currency manipulation, subsidies, restrictions on market access, corporate espionage and other strategies to frustrate U.S. companies’ attempts to compete in China.” Additionally, O’Rourke and his campaign state that China is pursuing dominance in the telecommunications and technology industries, including artificial intelligence, which threatens U.S. interests domestically and abroad.

In response, the campaign has offered the following solutions pertaining to the World Trade Organization: 

  • Modernize the World Trade Organization by creating a robust enforcement mechanism that can effectively punish China for its actions. 
  • Update the WTO agreement to address “currency manipulation, competition, overcapacity, industrial subsidies, and other modern trade issues.” 
  • Create enforceable labor standards within the WTO 
  • Make “sustainable” development an explicit goal of the WTO 
  • Improve the WTO dispute settlement system 
  • And, lead “a global coalition to stop China’s anti-competitive behavior.” 

To preserve American competitiveness and jobs, O’Rourke intends to launch an “aggressive WTO case with other countries against China,” and seek remedies to Chinese behavior external to the WTO, including: 

  • “Delisting Chinese companies from U.S. stock exchanges.” 
  • “Limiting access to the U.S. banking and financial system to Chinese companies” 
  • “Screening and potentially limiting Chinese investment in certain U.S. sectors” 
  • “Working with our allies to be prepared to engage in concerted countervailing duties cases” 
  • “Aggressively counter currency manipulation”  

It is evident that O’Rourke’s strategy is reliant upon incorporating multilateral institutions and other countries in challenging Chinese behavior. During a CNN Townhall event, O’Rourke leveraged the need for allies as a criticism against the Trump administration’s current trade war, stating, “When in the history of this country have we ever gone to war, a military fight or a trade war, without allies? … Because that’s exactly what we are doing now with China.” Despite the claim on his campaign page that he would immediately end the trade war, statements made by O’Rourke himself seem to indicate otherwise. O’Rourke argued that he would end $500 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods but acknowledged that “targeted tariffs” might “sometimes be necessary.”

In an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations, O’Rourke stated that the U.S. should be forthright about its values in the international arena, and should condemn Chinese repression of Uighurs and affirm that China respect its promises regarding Hong Kong’s independence. To O’Rourke, affirming a global commitment to human rights is consistent with American strategic priorities. Despite his fierce stance on trade, O’Rourke also acknowledged the importance of engagement with China over areas of mutual interest, such as climate change.[6]