The Missing Piece: Could Independents Influence U.S. China Policy?

In an era where polarization wields enormous clout, more politicians are driven to pander to partisan extremes and stray from the middle. On foreign policy issues, both parties have turned the dial up eleven and played up the “China threat”. However, as a group that has long been marginalized in American politics, Independents seem to be able to remain level-headed and not be swayed by the hyped “China threat” rhetoric. From Ross Perot to Andrew Yang to Tulsi Gabbard, Independents mull over U.S-China relations from the other side of wedge issues produced by partisan conflicts. Their non-mainstream China policy, albeit carrying limited influence for now, may help open more meaningful dialogues about U.S.-China relations in the highly divided American society.

What Are Independents’ China Policies?

Independents are inclined to prioritize pragmatism when it comes to China policy. When George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton were competing to toughen up on China in the wake of Tiananmen event in the 1992 presidential election, Ross Perot, as the Independent presidential candidate, laid a theoretical foundation for the de-escalation of U.S.-China tensions by charging that China was going to make great progress with the demise of its elderly leaders. The former Secretary of State Colin Powell was a registered Independent in his early years and restored his Independent identity after the January 6 riot in 2021. He was perceived a man who “had no loyalty to a political party” and followed through his efforts to maintain healthy ties between the U.S. and China despite criticism in the United States.

Amid anti-China sentiments, Independents of the new generation are not afraid to publicize their pragmatic China policies either. The former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang had left the Democratic Party and became an Independent before he established the centrist Forward Party. Even though he expressed his concerned with Beijing’s military ambitions and increasing authoritarianism, he pointed out that an ascendant China is not necessarily a threat to America and the trade war between these two countries was hurting both sides. His remarks were echoed by Tulsi Gabbard, another Democratic presidential candidate in 2020 and a four-term Congresswoman who just became an Independent last month. She has advocated a cooperative relationship between the U.S. and China and warned of the possibility of the escalation from the trade war into a hot war. Admittedly there are also Independent politicians who resonate with the mainstream “China threat” sentiments, but bold challenges to the current tough stance on China seem to come only from Independents. “Dragon slayers” are now prevalent among both Democrats and Republicans, which is not surprisingly an outgrowth of a similar campaign strategy to the “Taiwan Card”.

Motivations behind Independents’ China Policies

Unlike the ones from the two dominant political parties, Independent politicians do not have a solid political base they can rest on. The fact that the percentage of true Independents among Americans is less than 10% determines that resorting to partisanship or ideological radicalism will not help them make political hay as it does to Democrats and Republicans. Views among Independent voters, either Democratic-leaning or Republican-leaning, change more according to current conditions than do opinions among partisan diehards. If any Independents ever want to make a career in politics, what they need to do is being down-to-earth listeners to the public and respond to their needs with timely actions rather than hollow political rhetoric.

So, what is the top priority that concerns most Americans for the time being? The economy. Economic issues have always been one of the most important factors that directly influence a leader’s approval ratings, but it takes time and tenacity for a leader to achieve economic and welfare improvement. That is why politicians are often tempted by cheaper diversionary tactics. Rather than tackling the thorny trade war with China, which has cost the U.S. economy approximately 300,000 jobs and 0.3% of real GDP, the Biden administration neglected this urgent issue and chose to let the rising populism soar. As a result, partisan finger-pointing has taken the center stage with politicians from both parties eschewing serious discussions on the possibility of restoration of U.S.-China trade relations and its positive impact on the U.S. economy.

On the other hand, Independent politicians, with less concern about partisanship, can boldly point out the crux of the issue and offer solutions that they truly believe can be beneficial to the interests of ordinary Americans. Their advocates, void of partisan clamor, are more or less responded positively to by the people. For example, the only two incumbent Independent senators who both propose pragmatic approaches to China, Bernie Sanders and Angus King, are ranked the most popular and the fifth most popular senator, respectively. Their China policies may not be the only reason why they receive high approval ratings, but the way they efficiently interact with the public would undoubtedly render more people willing to listen to and seriously think about their China policies.

Growing Size of Independents and its Impact on U.S.-China Relations

As more Americans identify as Independents, especially among young people, their preferences to build a stronger relationship with China rather than getting tougher with Beijing may likely impact U.S. China policy in the near future. After all, the young generation are more likely than their older counterparts to take the brunt of negative economic ramifications resulting from U.S.-China tensions, and their views of China as the stronger economic power are also telling.

It is not to say that the growing trend of Independents would encourage more politicians to leave their parties and become Independents as Andrew Yang and Tulsi Gabbard did, but it would probably incentivize more moderates from both parties, if they ever want to win more votes, to be more vocal about the damage to the U.S. economy caused by U.S.-China tensions, particularly politicians from districts where trade with China accounts for a large proportion of their economic growth.

Pointing out the issue is a key step leading to deeper thoughts about the relationship between the U.S. and China. This, of course, will not happen right away—at least not before the end of midterm elections. But two years from now, there will be more opportunities for Americans to ruminate over U.S.-China relations with the temporary cooling of partisan hostility after the midterms. With Independent candidates such as Betsy Johnson and Evan McMullin challenging Democrats and Republicans this year, it is likely that more Independents, either politicians or voters, may come as a strong force that could sway the 2024 presidential election. There is no guarantee that Independents would directly facilitate the change in U.S. China policy, but they would at least have an alternative to “China threat” heard by more people and evoke more constructive debates over U.S.-China relations, sowing the seeds of change.

Jiachen Shi
Jiachen Shi
Jiachen Shi is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Tulane University. He received his M.A. in International Relations from the University of Liverpool and International Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCEi) from the University of Nottingham. His research interests include U.S.-China relations, American politics, political psychology, and political economy.