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Get Ready, China: Carly Fiorina Talks Tough on the South China Sea

The Iran nuclear deal has certainly dominated headlines, and rightly so considering the stakes involved. However, it seems at least some of the 2016 GOP presidential candidates are beginning to make their opinions known on what could be only described as America’s ultimate foreign policy challenge in an area of the planet that offers economic opportunity as well as deep tensions.

While many of the 2016 Presidential hopefuls on both sides of spectrum have been mostly silent on matters in the Asia-Pacific region—and specifically on China—one candidate seems to have offered at least some indication of her approach to Asia: Carly Fiorina.

Fiorina, rising in the polls thanks to a strong debate performance in Cleveland that many had her winning in dominant fashion, came out swinging over China’s actions in the South China Sea, cyber spying and its overall aggressive stance in the region. While somewhat vague in specifics, she did offer some clues on what she might do as President.

“We are going to have to be more aggressive in helping our allies in the region push back against new Chinese aggression, whether those allies are Australia, or Japan, or the Philippines,” Fiorina explained to CBS News in a recent interview. “Now that China's economy is wavering a bit, I would be conducting more flyovers on the South China Sea. We cannot permit China to control a trade route through which passes $5 trillion worth of goods and services every year.”

The former CEO of HP did not stop there.

“Chinese cyber-attacks are an act of aggression on the United States, and it must stop,” Fiorina said. “It is also true that our government has to be more competent about detecting and repelling those attacks.”

Fiorina's comments match the tone and substance of another top-tier GOP candidate who has essentially called for a tougher line on China: Scott Walker.

In an interview with The National Interest back in July, Walker explained his own vision when it comes to relations with Beijing:

“The communist regime in Beijing has exploited the hollowness of President Obama and Secretary Clinton’s “pivot” to Asia and the regime poses a serious challenge to American interests. In order to push back against China’s growing assertiveness, the U.S. must rebuild our defenses in Asia, develop a cyber deterrent that punishes China for its hacking, and continue to cultivate a coalition of free Pacific nations that stand for democracy, peace, and open markets. We must also stand up for human rights and speak out against the abysmal lack of freedoms in China.”

Walker did hint that there are areas of mutual interest where both America and China should cooperate:

“At the same time, we do not seek conflict with Beijing, and there are several areas where we both stand to benefit from close cooperation, from trade to dealing peacefully with the North Korean threat. But the truth is, conflict in the Asia-Pacific region will be less likely if China understands that we are ready to defend our national security interests and those of our friends and allies.”  

While debate over the Iran deal, ISIS, and even aggressive Russian actions in and around Ukraine seem destined to be the dominant foreign policy items of contention in the weeks and months to come, debate over the future of U.S.-China relations has the potential to become of greater importance—with one prominent expert declaring China “The sleeper issue of 2016.”

In a featured piece for Politico Magazine, Princeton Professor and respected scholar Aaron L. Friedberg laid out the challenge in compelling fashion:

“With the United States constrained by tight budgets and preoccupied with other problems, China has been pushing hard, and with some success, to change the status quo and shift the balance of power in its favor. While some China watchers continue to argue otherwise, it has become increasingly difficult to escape the conclusion that Beijing’s ultimate aim is to displace the United States and resume its traditional position as the preponderant power in Asia. This is a strategic challenge of historic dimensions.”

With Beijing recently devaluing its currency putting pressure on U.S. exports, multiple areas of economic competition and what seems like always simmering tensions in the South and East China Sea all aspiring presidential candidates must ensure they have a plan of action when it comes to what can only been seen as America’s biggest foreign policy question--a rising and increasingly assertive China.

Harry J. Kazianis is Executive Editor of The National Interest and a Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at The Center for the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @grecianformula.