As an academic and senator, Warren has relatively limited experience with China despite her frontrunner status. A search of her record on votesmart.org reveals only two votes on bills that include the word “China,” with both being votes against the confirmation of the current US ambassador to China, former Iowa governor Terry Branstad [1]. Warren first visited China in 2018 and took a firm stance, telling reporters that US policy towards China has been “misdirected for decades.” [2] 

Senator Warren has been called a “hardcore economic nationalist,” rivaling President Trump, with CNBC host Jim Cramer saying that, for China, “Trump’s deal is better than what Warren is offering.” [3]. Warren’s ambitious trade plan presents potentially major problems for US-China relations. In her plan, Warren writes that “We’ve let China get away with the suppression of pay and labor rights, poor environmental protections, and years of currency manipulation.” The plan includes a list of preconditions that countries must satisfy in order to trade with the US. These preconditions include minimum standards for labor rights, human rights, religious freedom, adherence to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, membership in the Paris Climate agreement and an independently verified plan to meet the country’s Paris goal, elimination of all domestic fossil fuel subsidies, ratification of the Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions, full compliance with tax treaties with the US, and compliance with Department of Treasury currency practice standards [4]. A hypothetical President Warren could decide that China is in violation of several of these conditions. Warren writes that she would renegotiate any agreements the US has with countries that do not satisfy the preconditions outlined in the plan [4], but it would most likely be very difficult to convince China to meet Warren’s stipulations. Adherence to Warren’s plan would probably lead to a resumption of the trade conflict between the US and China, which would hurt both sides.  

During the China and trade portion of the third Democratic debate, moderator George Stephanopoulos asked Warren, “President Obama signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In part, it was designed to rein in China, to bring China into some kind of regulation. What do you think he got wrong?” [5]. Warren did not directly respond to the question, with her answer being focused on condemning major multinational corporations. On China, Warren stated that she would use access to the American market as leverage [5]. This response is consistent with Warren’s trade plan and comes with the same concerns. Warren reemphasized that as President, she would require any country wanting to trade with the US to meet labor and environmental standards [5].    

Like the other 2020 Democratic presidential candidates Warren received and answered a foreign policy questionnaire about current international political issues from the Council on Foreign Relations. On China, Warren agreed with Biden in lauding the Hong Kong protesters and condemning China’s oppression of Uighurs [6]. The senator confirmed that regardless of who that may be, “The next president will have an obligation to cooperate with China to advance some of our highest priority national interests, including addressing the climate crisis and non-proliferation, while at the same time handling tough issues where we have little common ground. But our values cannot be used as a bargaining chip.” [6]. While Warren is committed to collaborating with China on climate change and preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, those “tough issues” are likely to sour China’s attitude towards cooperation with the US.  

When answering CFR’s other questions, Warren laid out possible opportunities for multilateral cooperation with China. Warren proposed a partnership with China (as well as Russia and Cuba) to end the crisis in Venezuela. To solve the crisis, Warren says the US and its partners must support “negotiations between elements of the regime, opposition, and civil society,” and identify “specific steps Maduro must take to ensure a credible democratic process and to immediately allow independent humanitarian assistance to enter the country.” [6].  However, this could just as easily become an antagonistic relationship as a partnership. The senator stated that if China, Russia and Cuba will not “become constructive players in this crisis,” the US must “contain their damaging and destabilizing actions.” [6]. On trade, Warren stated that “the elimination of domestic fossil fuel subsidies” is required of any country the US trades with [6]. Warren stated that any trade strategy must address China’s trade malfeasance and prioritize the well-being of American workers and farmers [6].   

Warren’s trade policy has faced criticism from commentators. Edward Alden of the Council on Foreign Relations writes that “the United States could not even trade with itself” under the conditions outlined in Warren’s trade plan [9]. Alden continues, writing that “The economic logic here is at least a decade out of date.” Another puzzling component is that the word “China” only appears once in the plan, despite the central role of the US-China relationship in the global trade environment [7]. Alden’s concluding criticism is that “Warren seems to forget that the rest of the world will have a say in this too. She imagines that the lure of the U.S. market is so strong that we can force other countries to play by whatever rules we wish to dictate. Trump has tried out that theory on China, and has nothing to show for it.” [7]. Alden notes that the US also harms its exporters by refusing to join trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership because they fail to meet perhaps unrealistic American expectations [7].  

Washington Post contributor and Tufts University professor of international politics Daniel W. Drezner writes that Warren’s trade policy as represented in the debate is very similar to President Trump’s policy [8]. Drezner concludes that Warren’s plan to use the US’ market power as leverage to achieve foreign policy goals is likely to be unsuccessful because the US has less market power and less regulatory power in 2019 than it did ten years ago [8]. Furthermore, Drezner cautions that the longer the trade conflict with China and other trade disputes continue, the worse the erosion of US market power becomes. Drezner concludes the article by saying that Warren’s plan sounds like “Trump with a human face” because under it, Warren is likely to continue the tariff conflict President Trump began [8].   

In another article, Drezner analyzed Warren’s full public foreign policy plan, titled A Foreign Policy for All. Drezner’s criticisms of the full-length foreign policy statement were largely the same as his criticism of Warren’s trade policy as articulated in the debate. The professor gave Warren’s policy a harsh review, saying that Warren’s argument against globalization as a cause of increasing American inequality is “simplistic” and that “it is far from clear if globalization is the key driver that you (Senator Warren) think it is.” [9]. In the plan, Warren maintains her characteristic focus on domestic politics, writing, “With American power increasingly challenged from within and without, we can no longer afford to think of our domestic agenda as separate from our foreign policy. A stronger economy, a healthier democracy, and a united people—these are the engines that power the nation and will project American strength and values throughout the world.” [10]. Warren’s policy paints a picture of China as a bad actor, saying it “weaponized its economy without ever loosening its domestic political constraints” and that “China is on the rise, using its economic might to bludgeon its way onto the world stage and offering a model in which economic gains legitimize oppression.” Continuing, Warren calls Chinese diplomacy “coercive” and criticizes China’s intellectual property theft and attempts to access US and other foreign countries’ technologies in exchange for market access [10].  The plan also criticizes President Trump’s trade policy as ineffective, despite its similar ideas to Warren’s own protectionist trade policy [10]. To address China’s actions, Warren calls for “our allies to enhance their multilateral cooperation and build alternatives to China’s coercive diplomacy,” and for the US to “aggressively promote transparency, call out kleptocracy, and combat the creeping influence of corruption. And we should stand with those who bravely fight for openness and pluralism in Moscow, Beijing, and beyond.” [10]. More generally, Warren prioritizes protecting American interests with the aid of US allies, reforming international institutions but maintaining US leadership, lowering military spending while maintaining capacity, and focusing on improving the American economy [10].    

Overall, Warren’s foreign and trade policies are likely to strain relations with China. While Chinese intellectual property theft must be addressed and multilateral cooperation should be encouraged, an adversarial China policy is not the way to accomplish either of those goals. Multilateral cooperation should include China to accomplish unanimously held goals such as stopping climate change or fighting disease, rather than being a mission among US allies to keep China down. Multilateral negotiation on trade should also be encouraged. Any American president is more likely to sway China with a greater percentage of the world economy on their side. To preserve the US-China relationship, Warren will also have to show flexibility on her standards for trade. While improving China’s human rights, labor rights, and environmental responsibility are admirable goals that should not be discouraged, China is unlikely to agree to them immediately. Designing a process with oversight and adherence incentives to achieve these goals over time could and should be part of multilateral trade negotiations. An effective strategy might be for the US and its allies to grant China progressively more favorable trading terms as China progresses towards achieving the desired environmental, human rights, and labor rights standards.   

References: 

  1. “Elizabeth Warren’s Voting Record on Issue: Foreign Affairs.” Vote Smart. Accessed October 1, 2019. https://votesmart.org/candidate/key-votes/141272/elizabeth-warren/32/foreign-affairs#.XZJh3PZFyUk
  2. Michael Martina. “Senator Warren, in Beijing, Says U.S. Is Waking up to Chinese Abuses.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, April 1, 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-china-warren-idUSKCN1H80X2
  3. Jessica Bursztynsky. “Cramer: China Better Cut a Trade Deal with Trump – a ‘President Warren’ Would Be Even Tougher.” CNBC. CNBC, July 30, 2019. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/07/30/cramer-elizabeth-warren-would-be-tougher-on-china-than-trump.html
  4. Elizabeth Warren. “Trade-On Our Terms.” Medium. Medium, July 29, 2019. https://medium.com/@teamwarren/trade-on-our-terms-ad861879feca
  5. NBC News. “Full Transcript: Democratic Debate in Houston.” NBCNews.com. NBCUniversal News Group, September 13, 2019. https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2020-election/full-transcript-democratic-debate-houston-n1053926
  6. Elizabeth Warren. “Elizabeth Warren Answers Our Foreign Policy Questions.” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, September 16, 2019. https://www.cfr.org/article/elizabeth-warren
  7. Warren, Elizabeth. “Elizabeth Warren’s ‘New Approach to Trade’ Looks Awfully Dated.” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed September 18, 2019. https://www.cfr.org/blog/elizabeth-warrens-new-approach-trade-looks-awfully-dated
  8. Daniel W. Drezner “The Perfect Test for Elizabeth Warren’s Trade Intentions.” The Washington Post. WP Company, September 16, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/09/16/perfect-test-elizabeth-warrens-trade-intentions/
  9. Daniel W. Drezner “Grading Elizabeth Warren’s Foreign Policy Vision.” The Washington Post. WP Company, January 2, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/01/02/grading-elizabeth-warrens-foreign-policy-vision/
  10. Elizabeth Warren. “A Foreign Policy for All.” Foreign Affairs. Foreign Affairs Magazine, July 30, 2019. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2018-11-29/foreign-policy-all