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The China Problem: Climate Change or Human Rights?

The most important yet under-discussed part of the Democratic debate three days ago was the exchange on China between South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg and anti-Trump billionaire Tom Steyer. Though they did not attack each other directly, their responses to the moderators’ questions about how to handle China’s crescendoing record of human rights abuses showed stark differences in foreign policy between the two. When Buttigieg was asked whether he would be a proponent of boycotting the 2022 Beijing Olympics as president, he declared that if the Chinese were to repeat their actions in the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre in Hong Kong, “They will be isolated from the free world and we will lead that isolation economically and diplomatically." Tom Steyer pushed back on Buttigieg’s idea of isolating China by saying, “We have to work with them as a frenemy, people who disturb us, who we disagree with, but who in effect we are linked within a world that is ever getting closer.” He emphasized his point by invoking the climate crisis and China’s crucial role in tackling the existential threat. Buttigieg and Steyer each push very different ideas on climate change in the context of international relations with countries like China. Steyer seems to think the most important function of foreign policy is to prevent an unlivable world. This line of thought makes sense for Steyer to have, given his continual emphasis that climate change is the greatest threat to humanity and must be treated as such. Most Democrats would agree with this point of view. The idea of ignoring human rights abuses in order to tackle climate change, on the other hand, conceptually makes sense in the denotation that if climate change continues to progress, it will exacerbate all of humanity’s problems. As sea levels rise and more places become unlivable, the world will see mass migration on a scale never before seen. As already