In U.S. 2012 elections, the leading candidates of the two parties have fairly similar agendas on China. Hoping for greater electoral support, both are sharpening stated policy positions. Since 2008, this has resulted in more aggressive foreign policy positions in general and more assertive policy toward China in particular.
Unipolar policies in a multipolar era are precisely the wrong policy approach in the wrong time.
Dissatisfaction over Leadership
In the U.S. presidential election 2012, the incumbent President Barack Obama is the Democratic favorite, but not a bipartisan bet.
According to current polls, most Americans like the incumbent president, but a half of the nation disapproves his job performance and that of his administration. Every second American would prefer to have a Republican president.
Indeed, most Americans are deeply disappointed with Capitol Hill. Almost or nine out of ten disapprove the job performance of the Congress. These figures represent a historical low.
When Senator Obama arrived in the White House, great hopes were associated with his presidency. And yet, the dissatisfaction that marked the surveys then continues to permeate opinion polls today.
In fall 2008, seven out of ten Americans disapproved the job performance of President George W. Bush. Today, that rate is about the same – and it has been even worse in the past months.
Most Americans are deeply concerned over the direction of the nation. Every second considers the economy and jobs to be the most vital issue facing the nation. Add into this equation the concern over national debt and deficits, health care and gas prices, and the overall figure soars to about 80 percent.
However, as China is presented primarily as the cause of the U.S. economic stagnation and as the policy toward China is consistently framed in negative terms, there may be worse problems ahead.
Since his campaign of 2008, President Barack Obama has sought a “cooperative relationship with China.” However, the campaign was occasionally also accompanied with strong criticism against Chinese currency, trade and human rights policies.
By April 2009, President Obama, together with Chinese President Hu Jintao, established the broadened Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) to discuss a wide range of bilateral, regional and global political, strategic, security, and economic issues between both countries.
In the past four years, the dual approach has prevailed.
During the January 2011 state visit by President Hu, President Obama noted that the two nations "will be more prosperous and more secure when we work together." Concurrently, the administration has focused on China’s currency policies, while launching a Trade Enforcement Unit to investigate "unfair trading practices in countries like China."
At the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit last fall, President Obama pushed a free trade Trans Pacific Partnership from which China has been excluded. Meanwhile, the Pentagon unveiled a new Air Sea Battle concept, in which China appears to be the only potential enemy with the sort of capabilities the concept is aimed at. Taiwan has been promised a $5.8 billion arms sale package and plans have been announced of an expanded U.S. Marine presence in Australia, while confronting China on the resources in the South China Sea.
Coupled with the White House’s objectives in South Asia, it all feels like a containment policy in Beijing.
From Currency War to Trade War
Last October, former governor Mitt Romney introduced his team of dozens of foreign policy and national security advisers; many were Bush administration veterans. In the process, he also launched an Asia-Pacific Working Group, including Evan Feigenbaum, Aaron Friedberg, and Kent Lucken. Feigenbaum used to serve as an adviser on China to Robert B. Zoellick, current World Bank chief, while Aaron Friedberg served as Vice President Dick Cheney’s advisor for security.
These advisors believe that conflict is not inevitable in East Asia as long as China participates in multilateral institutions and economic integration.
Like President Obama, Romney advocates strong military capability in Asia Pacific, deepening cooperation with India and other regional allies, a strong defense of human rights, and “incentivizing” China to pursue fair free trade policies. Like President Obama, he has charged China for theft of intellectual property, and favoring and subsidizing domestic producers. He has also pledged to designate China as a currency manipulator on the first day of his presidency, unless China "changes its ways."
The other Republican hopeful, former Senator Rick Santorum, has served for eight years on the Senate Armed Services Committee; he is a defender of neoconservative foreign policy, including robust military spending. Along with Iran and Venezuela, he considers China, part of a “gathering storm” of threats facing the United States.
During an October debate, Santorum said, “I want to go to war with China and make America the most attractive place in the world to do business.”
Two Policies, One Agenda
In the course of presidential campaigns, aggressive statements are often set aside, as fairly insignificant exaggerations. However, imagine, just hypothetically, that similar rhetoric would prevail in China.
What if Vice President Xi Jinping, the likely successor of President Hu, would say that “I want to go to war with America, that’s the only way we can make China an attractive place for business.” Or imagine that Vice Premier Li Keqiang, the expected successor of Premier Wen Jiabao, would threaten to designate the United States as a currency manipulator, due to several rounds of quantitative easing.
Obviously, such statements would unleash an angry, broad and virulent response in the United States. And yet, such rhetoric is perceived as normal in the U.S. presidential campaign. For almost a decade, Washington’s support for multilateralism has been eroding. That, in turn, is reflected on the campaign trail. The track record is not promising.
In the 2008 presidential campaign, China served as a scapegoat for the presidential candidates. In the 2010 mid-term election, the situation deteriorated further as China emerged as a scapegoat in campaign ads, according to a widely-read New York Times report.
Today, if former governor Romney wins the Republican nomination, the two dominant candidates will have fairly similar agendas on China. Due to these commonalities, each is likely to sharpen the agenda, in the hope of gaining greater electoral support.
And since both need the support of the independents and the conservatives, the temptation is for each to push the envelope even further.
After the Election
The problem is that, after the elections are over, the next White House must make painful decisions on excessive domestic debt, lingering unemployment and stagnating growth.
Last August, the nation lost its triple-A sovereign credit rating, due to soaring debt. Today, the latter is already close to $15.6 trillion. And there still is no credible long-term fiscal adjustment plan.
To overcome economic and security challenges, Washington needs Beijing (and Beijing needs Washington). Blaming China for ills at home is not part of the solution, but part of the problem. Dissatisfaction with the job performance of the Congress, the President and the White House reflects a deepening malaise, which has a potential to discredit an entire generation of political leadership.
In a multipolar era, unilateral policies – whether they focus on security as in the Bush two terms, or on trade, as in the Obama first term – are not the only available option.
Dan Steinbock is Research Director of International Business at the India, China and America Institute.