Milford, New Hampshire — Jeb Bush does not take kindly to a suggestion that China is “eating our lunch.”
“That’s only from one candidate. That’s a technical term for him,” Bush, the former Florida governor and presidential candidate, said in an interview with Business Insider of the “eating our lunch” formulation.
Real-estate mogul Donald Trump has used the phrase before. But in this case, when an interviewer suggested that China was eating America’s lunch to Bush last Thursday, the assessment had actually come from Ian Bremmer, the president of the Eurasia Group, in an earlier email conversation.
Bremmer is one of a number of American foreign-policy experts who view China as perhaps the most significant international challenge for the US’ next president.
Beijing has trillions of dollars in foreign-exchange currency reserves. They have engaged in cyber warfare against US government and commercial targets. And they are in the midst of a burgeoning confrontation with the US and its regional allies over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Bush doesn’t think that China has the upper hand on the US. But he still thinks China is a potential threat that the next president will have to carefully manage.
“It’s a good thing if it goes in the right direction, which requires our total engagement,” Bush said of China’s rising influence.
“But it’s also a threat. And how that plays out really relates to our strength as a nation. What’s clear to me is that if we pull back, we have a weak economy, we don’t fix the problems of our own country, when we look inwardly and we abandon our allies, that China and Russia — but China particularly — takes one step forward. Every step we take back, they aggressively pursue it. They lack respect for us when we lack respect for ourselves.”
Bush criticised the Obama administration’s approach to China, saying that “under a different environment” the country wouldn’t see its influence rise so unchecked. He also took aim at how the administration has conducted its “pivot to Asia,” the term used to describe the strategic shift of US military and diplomatic focus to the region under President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner in 2016.
“You offend Europe and other places who say, ‘Well, if you’re pivoting, does that mean you’re pivoting away from us?'” Bush said.
“This is one of a series of mistakes that this administration and Hillary Clinton, when she was secretary of state, bragged about. So total engagement with the Chinese is important, and recognising that they’re going to cheat. They’re going to push. They’re going to constantly probe. And when they see weakness they will move forward.”
One area where Bush and others believe that China is moving forward is in the South China Sea, where China has found itself in increasingly tense disputes over overlapping territorial claims with Vietnam, Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei. About $5 trillion in trade goes through the South China Sea each year.
Bush accused the current administration of taking a superficial approach to upholding the South China’s Sea’s strategic balance when it sent a US warship to within a few miles of Chinese-constructed artificial islands in the Subi reef, which are part of the disputed portion of the region’s Spratly Islands, in November. The US also flew a B-52 strategic bomber over the artificial islands last month.
“We should do it with great regularity to confirm the obvious — which is, these are international waters,” Bush said of operations like the one last month. “Are we that pathetic and that weak that we actually send out press releases when we do something based on international law?”
Bush also said he was concerned about continued US Navy spending cuts at the same time China moves to significantly build up its own naval fleet, suggesting he would move to reverse that trend.
“We need to also make sure that we invest in our Navy,” he said. “Because we’ve cut back on our refurbishment and maintenance work and not building as many ships. The Chinese have accelerated their Navy. At some point, you could reach parity. We still are the strongest Navy force in the world. but those trend lines could change dramatically.”
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