US presidential candidates’ missteps on China a worrying reminder of America’s international ignorance
Tom Plate says Republican Ben Carson’s spurious claim about Chinese involvement in Syria raises disturbing questions about some White House hopefuls’ lack of knowledge on foreign policy issues, and proves it’s past time for the US to refine its thinking
At times, China and its ways are viewed from America as if little has changed. One of those times is now. This is our quadrennial US presidential campaign season. Sometimes, it is our silliest season.
One spurious claim about China recently marinated into a campaign issue and produced its first candidacy casualty – without Beijing having to lift more than one pinky of denial. Here’s the story and the background:
In the arduous process of installing a new US president in January 2017, the China question has been simmering on the back-burner of the debate but not front and centre, yet. Several reasons explain.
One is the current US focus on Islamic extremism.
Another is that a non-posturing, truly substantive debate on any foreign policy issue is difficult to achieve when scoring voter points rather than unravelling complexities is the task at hand; but complexities are at the heart of all significant foreign issues, especially relations with China.
Yet another is that none of the candidates, except Hillary Clinton, former US secretary of state, can honestly say they know much of anything about China.
Of the two Republicans who in fact have chalked up headlines knocking Beijing, it looks as if only one will remain standing much longer. That would be Donald Trump. His campaign line, avoiding subtleties as any pitchman would, has been reductionist: Little good can come to the US when substantial good goes China’s way. It’s a one-way street. The Sino-US relationship functions as a competitive struggle, not as a common cause. You either beat them, or they beat you. At the moment they are “beating us”. So we have got to beat them back.
It is true that, in America, domestic rather than foreign issues usually dominate presidential campaigns. But with skill, Trump has set up China primarily as a nexus issue of economic rather than geopolitical disadvantage. The real-estate tycoon’s analysis is bogus, to be sure, but it is rather politically clever, and demonstrates anew his towering capacity for teeing up entertaining oversimplifications that capture some voters’ rapture.
Less skillfully, the otherwise soft-spoken and provincial Republican Ben Carson, until recently close to Trump in the ever-roiling opinion polling, may have hit his tripping point when he slipped badly on the China question. Almost out of nowhere, the former neurosurgeon rhetorically wandered off the campaign trail into the Syrian desert, claiming to detect a sighting in that maelstrom of vast tragedy that no one else had: the presence of China.
The odd assertion, made about a month ago during a Republican TV debate, has been sticking to Carson like a celebrity medical malpractice suit. His Syria misstep was: “You know, the Chinese are there, as well as the Russians…” With that inadvertent revelation of incompetency, Carson strongly reinforced the point that not every American, not even a board-certified neurosurgeon, should be permitted to operate in the White House.
Be that as it obviously is, the poor doctor is anything but unique in ahistorically conflating China and Russia. For, something like a computer virus on the US political hard drive invariably prompts an automatic psychic recall of the former Soviet Union whenever the subject of China arises. The recall protocol includes the absurd notion that any country run by a communist party poses an inherent threat, as the former Soviet Union once did. But times change; even former “pure” Communists can marinate into BMW roadster capitalists; today’s communist Vietnam, former all-out evil enemy, is now practically whimpering at the White House back door in a lost dog’s effort to find a new pal; and lately Russia (these days terribly non-communist indeed) seems more the thorn in Washington’s side than China.
Carson’s clumsy Syrian slip prompted the question: Do we – or do we not – have the right to require presidential candidates to present at least a responsible level of knowledge about the big issues if they want the big job? America, which is not a dishonest society, knows in its heart that it must own up to aspects of its own international ignorance.
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Every sane American now recognises that absolutely zero weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq after we invaded, and that was the stated reason for the operation. And so now we have had tendered by a presidential candidate a phoney claim that Chinese forces or agents (or … Chinese restaurants…) are in Syria, when they are not there and almost certainly never will be.
This unprepared candidate, blithely unfamiliar with core international fact, looks to have seriously deflated his presidential balloon. It’s not often we see a candidate implode on a foreign-policy issue, but with the world getting smaller with every new, gruesome terrorist explosion, foreign policy questions no longer seem so foreign and ignorance no longer such bliss.
The instinct to conflate China with Russia is what mainland Chinese term America’s “cold war mentality”. I have always thought this criticism a fair point, notwithstanding our differences with Beijing. So, in a sense, we should thank Carson for his inadvertent illustration of a recurring intellectual error and agree that it’s past time our national thinking were updated and refined if we want to understand China and the world properly. Sure, China needs to understand America better – this too is true. But, sometimes, what our White House-ambitious politicians say and do seems inexplicable, incomprehensible and incompetent, even to Americans who, after all, are more or less used to this sort of nonsense, especially during campaigns.
Columnist Tom Plate teaches courses on Asia, as well as on the UN, in the political science department of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where he is the distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies