Bernie Sanders’s Unimpressive New China Strategy

Political News

Former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally in St Louis, Missouri, U.S., March 9, 2020. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Bernie Sanders has written an essay in Foreign Affairs, titled “Washington’s Dangerous New Consensus on China,” to sketch out the contours of a progressive China policy cognizant of the challenge posed by the Chinese Communist Party without giving into the emerging bipartisan attitude “that views the U.S.-Chinese relationship as a zero-sum economic and military struggle.”

The piece mostly rehashes the argument that normalizing trade relations with Beijing was a massively disastrous event that did not lead to liberalization, before offering some unimpressive solutions. The senator has penned a short essay here, and it fails to get to the core of the challenge. It’s mostly just a warning: “Instead of extolling the virtues of free trade and openness toward China, the establishment beats the drums for a new Cold War.”

Sanders isn’t the first progressive lawmaker to caution against giving in to that tendency. Since the middle of last month, when consideration of a massive China-focused legislative package came into sharper focus, Representative Ilhan Omar has urged her colleagues against adopting a “Cold War mentality.” This progressive vision for China policy sees fit to call out the Party’s worst human-rights abuses without accelerating the military buildup for which hawks have clamored.

But that strategic vision is still taking shape. As it stands now, if we are to take Sanders’s essay as its main expression, there’s not much meat on the bones. He writes that Americans should oppose intellectual-property theft, human-rights abuses, and China’s attempts to undermine international institutions. That’s all fine, but there’s no deviation yet from the new consensus that he opposes.

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Then, he writes that “relentless fearmongering about China” has spurred anti-Asian hate crimes. Sanders is hardly the first to make this argument, though we must now ask: If pursuing policies to counter Beijing’s malign behavior is the proximate cause of the recent attacks against Asian Americans (as opposed to the broader uptick in crime and inability of major cities to adequately treat people struggling with mental illness), aren’t some of Sanders’s own prescriptions part of the problem?

With the exception of a call for the U.S. to invest in more vaccine distribution, his other ideas — a global minimum wage and prioritizing “human needs over corporate greed and militarism” are less than germane to the question of countering China. Another question: How exactly does Sanders propose that U.S. policy work to deter the Party’s obvious military designs on Taiwan without increased military spending?

The progressive opposition to the “Dangerous New Consensus” sounds insubstantial and, otherwise, a double standard that selectively views their pet bugaboos as the cause of hate crimes. Their proposed China policy is more a political stunt than a serious vision.

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