U.S. relations with China are an issue that increasingly commands the attention of voters, who are likely to cast their ballots in the November midterm elections largely on the basis of which candidates are toughest on China, experts say. But the same experts do not always agree as to whether jobs and trade, or national security, is the most important piece of the U.S.-China puzzle.
“In general, I think China will be kind of like background music throughout the entire campaign coming up in the fall. It has been before and will be again. Certainly this year, with Republicans up in the polls and being identified with the Trumpian attitude toward China, we’re going to see a need for every candidate to set himself or herself up as tough on China,” said Douglas H. Paal, a distinguished fellow of the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
The question of China’s importance in the November midterms was the subject of a Wall Street Journal article on May 2, 2022 which compared the number of times that leading Democratic and Republican candidates in some of the most closely primary contests—those in Ohio and Pennsylvania—have made reference to China in their campaign ads. Leading the pack is Trump-backed Mehmet Oz, who has enjoyed a modest lead in polls against former hedge fund CEO David McCormick as they compete for the nomination to run for the Senate seat currently held by Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, who is retiring. The primary election will take place on May 17.
As of May 2, Oz had mentioned China 8,351 times in his ads, significantly more than the next-highest candidate ranked in this category, Tim Ryan of Ohio, who had made reference to China 3,417 times, the Journal reported.
Oz has mentioned China more than three times as often as his rival McCormick, who has mentioned China 2,580 times.
As Oz’s thin lead in the polls indicates, endorsement by Trump is not, by itself, a guarantee of overwhelming support from Republican voters, and the extent of Trump’s continuing influence within the party is the subject of some controversy. Candidates who want an edge with the voting public in the primaries and the midterms need to make clear that they are well attuned to the issue—China’s role in the world—that preoccupies millions of voters and especially those in middle American states hit hard by overseas competition, experts say.
The Foreign Policy Challenge
The message of many candidates may focus heavily on economic and trade issues. But for some observers, the economic populism of candidates catering to voters who have lost jobs or fear losing jobs to overseas competition may be missing the point, given the extremely serious foreign policy and national security concerns of an Asia-Pacific region where Beijing’s expansionist aims stir continual uncertainty.