Sun. May 26th, 2024

States are taking on issues with China, but is it at the expense of our national foreign policy goals? 

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell May25,2024

Tension is growing this week — not just on American college campuses, but also far away in the disputed South China Sea, where the Philippines has accused China’s coast guard of harassing and damaging one of its vessels. 

America’s current approach to China is to be somewhat tough on our “strategic competitor” as we try to navigate hot-button issues from tariffs to Taiwan, making the relationship precarious. This latest incident puts more pressure on that relationship. 

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in China last week for face-to-face talks on trade, fentanyl and the military challenges of Chinese support for Ukraine and its aggressive behavior in the South China Sea. 

Having China as a competitor is not new. What is new is that Washington now has competition from within America as various states and cities form their own foreign policy approaches to China — often at odds with each other. 

Take California: In recent months, San Francisco Mayor London Breed made a week-long visit to China where she practiced a bit of “panda diplomacy,” securing an agreement to borrow a couple of those adorable furry black and white bears — a great use of foreign travel. 

Next up was a trip to China by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom — the first trip there by a U.S. governor in four years. Understandably, California sees China as an ally, given its geography and the large presence of Chinese immigrants; about 15 percent of the state hail from Asia. But his trip went beyond pandas into the thorny issues of trade. 

Trade is a complex issue that the Biden administration is trying to handle, including tariffs on certain goods in the high-tech industry, where competition over artificial intelligence is keen. President Biden has also called for raising tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum from China. What and how goods and services move between the two nations is a high-level topic. 

When a state negotiates with a foreign power, things can get messy. 

Among the issues California leaders are pressing for are more direct flights between San Francisco and Chinese cities. But recently unions representing U.S. pilots and flight attendants published a letter in opposition to the addition of U.S.-China routes because of unfavorable practices, such as the freedom of Chinese airlines to fly over Russian airspace. 

Now take Florida. In comparison to California, Florida is offering China the big chill. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed multiple bills to “crack down on Communist China.” He has enacted laws that stop Chinese firms from doing business in the state. Going farther than any federal bans on Chinese products, DeSantis is stopping Chinese companies from buying agricultural land in Florida. He is also limiting educational ties between China and his state.  

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin has restricted Ford Motor company from setting up a battery venture because its partner was a Chinese company. 

Other U.S. states are formulating their own foreign policy agendas related to climate, immigration and trade. Often these relationships go beyond citizen engagement or people-to-people diplomacy, which should be encouraged. 

Take drone policy — another tricky area where individual states have policies that clash with federal foreign policy. Law enforcement agencies around the country are fans of using drones made by a Chinese company, DJL. But the U.S. Treasury and Commerce departments view them as a national security threat. Congress is considering legislation that would severely curtail the company’s sales. 

There are limits to what states can do vis-à-vis foreign affairs. The Constitution gives the federal government the primary power to manage U.S. foreign relations in Article I, Section 10, which prohibits states from engaging in a set of activities that relate to international affairs. The U.S. Supreme Court has further illuminated this distinction, describing the United States’s foreign affairs power “not only as superior to the states but residing exclusively in the national government.” 

The United States has, to its credit, often encouraged mayors and governments to be engaged in foreign affairs. During the Obama administration, the United States had a Special Representative for Global Intergovernmental Affairs, headed by Reta Jo Lewis, now the top official at the Export-Import Bank. The mission was to build and support strategic relations between the federal government, state and local leaders and their foreign counterparts, and it did great things for America. 

Shortly after taking office, Biden embraced the role that cities and states can play in transnational issues like climate change, global health, trade and migration, creating an office of subnational diplomacy within the State Department.  

Unforeseen, perhaps, was the vast partisan divide that would come to strain relationships between the federal government and states and the deep polarization within Congress. Even before a national ban on TikTok was considered, in 2023 state lawmakers passed 11 bills banning the social media platform. 

What might have been a positive, productive engagement of states with global affairs has turned into a tussle, as with so many domestic issues like abortion and gun control. The result is often confidence in one state at the expense of another, which can undermine national affairs. 

America needs to act, at times, with one voice to convey a set of values, policies and strategic interests, be it policy toward China or climate change. If we fracture along too many fissures in city or state interests, we lose our ability to exercise national power and provide openings for other countries to take advantage of our differences. As Catherine the Great once said, “Power without a nation’s confidence is nothing.” 

Tara D. Sonenshine is a senior nonresident fellow at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University 

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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2 thoughts on “States are taking on issues with China, but is it at the expense of our national foreign policy goals? ”
  1. Is the increasing tension related to China affecting America’s foreign policy stability?

    1. Yes, the escalating tension with China is indeed impacting America’s foreign policy stability. The recent incidents in the South China Sea are adding strain to the already delicate relationship between the two nations. The diverse approaches taken by different states and cities within the U.S. to deal with China further complicate matters and create internal competition. It’s crucial for the country to find a unified stance to effectively address the challenges posed by China while upholding its national foreign policy goals.

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