Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, working to maintain his second-place status in the Republican primary, said Friday that as president he would “reorient” U.S. foreign policy to give clear priority to China while downplaying national security risks posed by conflicts such as Russia’s war on Ukraine.
In a speech laying out his approach, Mr. DeSantis cast Beijing as a greater threat to the United States than the Axis powers and the Soviet Union ever were because of its economic might. As commander in chief, he said, he would “prioritize the Indo-Pacific region as the most pressing part of the world for defending U.S. interests and U.S. security.”
A less aggressive approach, he argued, would allow China to export its “authoritarian vision all across the world,” creating a “global dystopia.”
“They seek to be the dominant power in the entire world, and they are marshaling all their society to be able to achieve that objective,” Mr. DeSantis said. “So this is a formidable threat and it requires a whole of society approach.”
Mr. DeSantis’s remarks, delivered in Washington, D.C., at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, come at a difficult moment for his presidential campaign. Not only is he badly trailing former President Donald J. Trump in the polls, but Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and former ambassador to the United Nations, has successfully positioned herself as a credible alternative to Mr. Trump, puncturing the Florida governor’s argument that the Republican presidential primary is a two-man race.
Mr. DeSantis has lately used foreign policy to attack other Republican presidential candidates, rebuking Mr. Trump for his critical comments about Israeli leaders and accusing Ms. Haley — who is attracting growing interest from Republican donors and voters — of being soft on China.
Never Back Down, a pro-DeSantis super PAC, has spent roughly $2.4 million against Ms. Haley this month, largely to criticize her foreign policy record — its first major investment against a candidate who wasn’t Mr. Trump. (Ms. Haley’s campaign has pushed back against those assertions, and fact checkers have shown that Mr. DeSantis’s claim that she supports allowing Gazan refugees into the United States is false.)
While the Republican base has moved away from the neoconservative, interventionist policies of George W. Bush, Mr. DeSantis has taken heat from the G.O.P.’s national security establishment for some of his isolationist tendencies. This year, he called the war in Ukraine a “territorial dispute,” comments that he later walked back. On the campaign trail in the early nominating states, he has faced pointed questions from voters, particularly in moderate New Hampshire, about whether he would cede Ukraine to its Russian invaders.
Mr. DeSantis on Friday also accused China of fueling the ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Israel by supporting Russia and Iran, saying that President Biden’s policies toward those adversaries had encouraged their aggression.
He touched on how Ukraine would fit into his foreign policy vision, suggesting that U.S. efforts to aid the democratic nation in its fight against Russia were a distraction from America’s more pressing interests. The United States has given Ukraine billions in security assistance, including weapons. But continuing that outlay has been a point of tension within the G.O.P. and has become the center of the spending fight in Congress.
“Lengthy conflicts, particularly between Russia and Ukraine, will ultimately benefit China because it will distract America and it will deplete our already dwindling Western weapons and ammunition stockpiles,” Mr. DeSantis argued, adding that “the threat posed by the C.C.P. requires our primary focus and attention,” in a reference to the Chinese Communist Party.
While Mr. DeSantis emphasized his longstanding support for Israel in his China-centric speech, he did not specify what type of additional assistance the U.S. government should provide. He said this week that the United States should continue its military aid to the Jewish state, but noted that “it’s Israel’s war.”
Still, on Friday, he defended Israel’s right “to fully defend itself against these barbarous attacks” by Hamas.
As a three-term congressman who served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee before being elected governor of Florida in 2018, Mr. DeSantis established a foreign policy record that many of his allies described as “Jacksonian,” a reference to President Andrew Jackson’s approach. Such a worldview favors a robust military but has a narrow conception of the national interest that focuses on protecting American territory, people, hard assets and commercial interests overseas.
That vision of building hard power but only using it when necessary was on display in Mr. DeSantis’s speech to the Heritage Foundation.
“As a veteran of the Iraq war, I recognize the gravity of deploying U.S. troops in combat and hope to never have to do that as commander in chief,” said Mr. DeSantis, who served as a Navy lawyer. “But if such a duty calls, I will ensure that the U.S. will be fully committed to winning. Our forces will have what they need to be lethal and capable, preferably to deter conflict in the first place, but also to achieve a decisive, overwhelming victory if conflict arises.”
He also repudiated America’s “post-9/11 neoconservatism,” saying it “represented a departure from traditional, Reaganesque ‘peace through strength’ policies.”
Mr. DeSantis said he would counter China by expanding the U.S. Navy, increasing American energy production and the mining of rare-earth minerals, overhauling the nation’s industrial manufacturing base, protecting domestic technology and intellectual property and slashing “the bloated defense bureaucracy.”
And he took several opportunities to criticize Mr. Biden, describing his foreign policy as “rudderless, weak, misguided” and saying that one of his own first priorities as president would be to secure the nation’s borders.
In response, Sarafina Chitika, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, said that Mr. DeSantis’s “foreign policy agenda would endanger the United States and undermine our allies.”
“It’s clear he’s out of his depth,” Ms. Chitika said in a statement.