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Nikki Haley turns hawkish takes on China up to 11

The Republican presidential candidate has no interest in dialing back tensions with Beijing amid a burgeoning cold war.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

Speaking before the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute Tuesday, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley laid out a hawkish policy for China. Sharply critical of the Biden administration’s alleged ineptitude in confronting China, Haley, who served briefly as Donald Trump’s UN ambassador, made a series of proposals that were actually not all that different from the current policy, only with a greater emphasis on economic decoupling and a dash of extra fearmongering. 

She would take a policy that is already heavy on building up the military and coercive tactics against Beijing and make it heavier yet. This is unfortunately typical of the debate over China policy in this country. It is often taken for granted that the only “realistic” alternative to the current policy of containment and rivalry is a more intense and reckless version of the same. But America deserves better options.

Notably lacking in Haley’s plan is any discussion of positive economic statecraft in the Asia-Pacific region, diplomatic engagement with non-aligned countries, or working with Beijing on mitigating the effects of climate change. On bilateral trade, her only suggestion was to reduce it due to the role played by Chinese manufacturers in the fentanyl crisis. In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal that previewed her speech, she wrote, “I will push Congress to revoke permanent normal trade relations [with China] until the flow of fentanyl ends.” 

If the U.S. acted on this threat, it would result in significant costs for American businesses and consumers, but Haley spoke as if revoking PNTR would harm only China. Moreover, during questions afterward, Haley entertained the possibility of “full-on decoupling” from China if it was “necessary” for national security. The former governor and ambassador sounded every bit like the hardline ideologue that we saw during the Trump years. 

At one point in her speech, she called Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Beijing a “gold-plated invitation for more Chinese aggression.” She later tried to walk this back a little during the questions, saying that she objected to the way that the Biden administration was doing things, but it’s hard to see what kind of diplomatic engagement with China she would support other than issuing threats and ultimatums. 

Like other hawkish critics of Biden’s China policy, Haley ignored much of what Biden has done that those critics support while emphasizing the president’s supposed weakness. For what it’s worth, the Biden administration recently made an effort to address the crisis directly when it expanded interdiction efforts by the Department of Homeland Security. To the extent that she acknowledged any of what Biden has done on export controls, it was only to fault him for not going far enough. She wants the U.S. to “deepen” military ties with regional allies and with India, but then this is exactly what Biden has been doing for the last two years. 

In both her op-ed and her speech, Haley complained that Biden has failed to stop “the expansion of China’s footprint on our homeland,” which makes it sound as if he has permitted the People’s Liberation Army to set up shop on U.S. soil. This is connected to Haley’s proposal to “root out” Chinese influence in the U.S., which largely focuses on blocking Chinese agricultural land purchases.

As the RS’s Blaise Malley has shown, Chinese purchases of farmland in the United States account for a tiny fraction of foreign ownership and do not pose a threat to the country at all. She is also calling for eliminating federal funding for universities that receive any Chinese funding, a sweeping policy that would likely undermine U.S. educational institutions, many of which derive substantial income from tuition paid by Chinese students, rather than protect them.

“I will push American businesses to leave China as completely as possible,” Haley declared, without defining what “pushing” would mean. Regardless, it is a disturbing proposal for anyone concerned about government overreach and interference in the market. 

Another area where Haley wants to “push” is in Europe. She said, “We must push Europeans to recognize that China threatens them as much as us.” It will be difficult to convince most European allies of this, and they are unlikely to respond well to being “pushed” by Washington to understand their own interests. We cannot always expect our allies to see China in the same way that Washington does, and, if the U.S. tries to force them to fall in line, it will likely only serve to strain relations with our closest allies.

If there was any suspicion that Haley’s focus on China in this speech meant that she might agree with so-called Asia First hawks, she laid it to rest. “Now is the time to help Ukraine bring this war to a decisive end,” she said, without explaining or even hinting at how such a decisive end can be achieved. The war in Ukraine is unlikely to have a result of the sort that she imagines, and pretending that it will seems little more than wishful thinking. Her speech was long on making bold assertions and short on spelling out how the U.S. could do practically any of the things she wants at an acceptable cost.

In an odd moment during the questions after the speech, Haley dodged direct questions about whether she supported “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan or if she agreed with Biden’s off-the-cuff comments that U.S. forces would fight to defend the island. These questions seemed like obvious opportunities for Haley to endorse an explicit security commitment to Taiwan, but she kept falling back on vague remarks about “preventing war.” When pressed on whether the U.S. should support Taiwanese independence, she punted again and said that it was up to Taiwan. Perhaps Haley was reluctant to be seen endorsing a position that Biden had also taken, but she ended up muddling her own hardline message.  

If this speech is any indication, Haley’s policy toolbox contains only sharp implements. Her proposals focus solely on increasing the role of the military in U.S. foreign policy and threatening to use all forms of economic coercion to bring America’s adversaries to heel. Her “comprehensive plan” for China is nothing of the kind. It appears that Haley has not thought through the implications of the threats and proposals that she is making. 

While she kept emphasizing the importance of preventing war with China, her understanding of how to do so was one-dimensional. As she sees it, the only things that matter are strength and showing strength. Anything less opens the door to aggression. There was no discussion of the interests that the U.S. and China might have in common or how to manage the conflicts that inevitably arise between great powers. Everything in Haley’s speech was focused on aggressive posturing, making demands, and telling China where it could get off. If the U.S. followed Haley’s lead, it would make U.S.-Chinese relations even more tense and volatile — and conflict more likely.

(Shutterstock/ A Katz)
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