China may be trade villain, but J.D. Vance, Tim Ryan must dare to promote solid plans

·4 min read

A campaign needs attention, and Tim Ryan got just that in the spring with his opening television ad as he seeks to jump from the U.S. House to the Senate. The ad focused on “one word” — China.

“It’s us versus China,” Ryan emphasizes in various settings.

Critics voiced concerns about an anti-Asian narrative, echoing the dark vibe of Donald Trump. Ryan didn’t look back. Actually, he has been blaming China for years. In this instance, he makes his point in an Ohio Trump captured twice. Ryan knows he must attract support in parts of the state, including his own district, where many voters have abandoned Democrats for the Trumpian message.

Ryan had his villain, and a show of independence in signaling he would side with Trump when they agreed.

J.D. Vance, author, venture capitalist and the Republican in the Senate race, prevailed in the primary with help of the Trump endorsement and big money from Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley tycoon. Vance talks trash about China, too. His website warns about “Chinese who are stealing from American industry.”

No doubt, China fails to play by the rules of global trade, ignoring pledges it made when granted entry to the World Trade Organization. Its record on human rights rates among the worst. Ryan, Vance and Trump have reason to hurl cutting words. Yet this trio, and many others casting blame, offer few ideas for something better.

Wouldn’t it be nice if a prominent Senate contest became a platform for discussing the subtleties, complexities and components of a smart approach to China?

Naïve to consider the possibility, even in Ohio, where China has sway, direct and indirect? Probably.

Yet if relations with China are so important, and they are, it is careless to wage a campaign of simplicities and cartoonish portrayals.

Vance describes the Trump policies as largely “right.” The former president said what many businesses know, though they mostly stay silent about Chinese misbehavior. He imposed tariffs on Chinese goods. He struck a deal stating China would purchase a greater share of American goods.

Unfortunately, China hasn’t come close to the purchase target, the amount unrealistic to start. American consumers and businesses foot the tab for the tariffs. They also face the cost of Chinese retaliation, Ohio farmers among the casualties, leading to billions in federal aid.

China won’t bend to the will of an American president. Its leadership proved cool to the incoherence of the Trump approach, which fluctuated from unctuous to savage. In the end, Trump saw manufacturing jobs decline on his watch.

What, then, does a clear-eyed and effective approach look like?

The CHIPS Act, just approved by bipartisan majorities in Congress, fits. The measure reflects taking care first of the economy at home. This drive for improved competitiveness involves more than support for the domestic semiconductor industry, ensuring an expanded presence, including the massive investment Intel plans for the Columbus area. The legislation contains an overdue commitment to research and development.

It calls for setting up 20 regional “tech hubs,” linking research universities with private businesses, as part of a sustained foundation for high technology, inviting a “Silicon Heartland,” as advocates put it.

Writing recently in Foreign Affairs, Kevin Rudd, the president of the Asia Society and a former Australian prime minister, discussed the value of “managed strategic competition” between China and the United States. The concept involves regular communication with the goal of establishing “guardrails” and “redlines” to prevent the rivalry from turning dangerous.

Rudd argues that clearing the air about intentions would allow ample room for competition, political and economic, while avoiding what has been evident lately: “a strategic free-for-all with no rules of the road to constrain them.”

The absence of such understanding and context has been evident in the anxiety triggered by Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, making an unnecessary visit to Taiwan last week.

As Joe Biden entered the White House, David Dollar of the Brookings Institution issued an analysis outlining how to meet the China challenge. He stresses the importance of investment at home and a strong military presence to deter Chinese assertiveness. He also advises enlisting allies in any effort to make gains on the trade front.

To its credit, the Biden team has moved in these directions, recognizing that an American administration cannot succeed on its own.

Dollar stresses another dimension often obscured by the heated rhetoric. The United States and the rest of the international community need China, not as a market so much but as a partner in problem-solving. For instance, climate change won’t be addressed without China. The current pandemic highlights the role the Chinese must play in advancing global public health.

Yes, it gets complicated, or just what many candidates prefer to avoid.

Douglas was the Beacon Journal editorial page editor from 1999 to 2019. He can be reached at mddouglasmm@gmail.com.

U.S. Senate Democratic candidate Rep. Tim Ryan (left) and Republican candidate J.D. Vance (right).
U.S. Senate Democratic candidate Rep. Tim Ryan (left) and Republican candidate J.D. Vance (right).

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Hoping JD Vance, Tim Ryan will back smart moves on China