Slowly but surely, China has been gaining momentum as an election issue, even in a year focused on domestic policy. The party conventions will likely underscore this trend. Although the conventions no longer hold much functional importance, their pageantry and grandstanding—the political rhetoric, the solutions offered or lack thereof—will illustrate the two parties’ differing approaches to managing the U.S.-China relationship.
A quick look back at the 2008 platforms illustrates China’s resurgence in American politics. The 2008 Democratic Party platform mentioned China eight times. But none of those mentions referred to the U.S.-China trade relationship, save for a pull-quote from a laid off manufacturing worker whose employer sent his job to “Mexico and China.” The language on China mostly focused on engaging rising powers broadly. The 2012 platform will not be unveiled until the Democratic convention in the first week of September, but it is hard to imagine that the China section will not include significant language on trade.
The 2008 Republican Party platform began its China section noting concerns with China’s military rise and lack of political freedoms. It then noted the benefits of the U.S-China trade relationship: “Our bilateral trade with China has created export opportunities for American farmers and workers, while both the requirements of the World Trade Organization and the realities of the marketplace have increased openness and the rule of law in China.”
Any U.S. politician making that argument this year is likely to be greeted with pitchforks, and both parties know it. Indeed, a leaked early version of this year’s GOP platform makes only a quick nod to trade’s positive effects on China’s political system before asserting that America’s “serious trade disputes, especially China’s failure to enforce international standards for the protection of intellectual property and copyrights, as well as its manipulation of its currency, call for a firm response from a new Republican Administration.” In other words, times have changed.
Republicans come together this week, where they will try to overcome two divides: Between past positions and current ones, and between realists and hawks in the party. The GOP must come together on a coherent position, lest it exacerbate the sense that the party has a reactive, pendulum-swing approach to China—a laissez-faire unwillingness to act followed by the threat of sanctions that could spark a trade war. Depending on the year, either stance might be popular, but neither represents good policy.
Picking Paul Ryan as vice president left the GOP ticket lacking in substantive foreign policy experience. As part of a strategy to chip away at President Obama’s poll numbers on national security, Ryan has taken to the trail to talk about two issues: China and the defense budget. Along the way, Ryan is aligning himself with Mitt Romney’s positions, especially Romney’s promise to label China a “currency manipulator” on day one of his presidency. In his stump speech, Ryan has said the Chinese have treated Obama “like a doormat.”
Ryan is the latest in a line of Republicans who have changed their position on this issue. In 2010, Ryan voted against legislation that would have empowered the president to impose tariffs on the imports from countries that have “fundamentally undervalued” currencies. In his campaign book, Romney opposed actions by both Bush and Obama to get tough on Chinese cheating, and Romney’s chief trade advisor also opposed such a move when he was commerce secretary in the Bush administration.
Recently a broader Republican schism on China spilled into the public debate when the Romney campaign picked long-time GOP foreign policy hand and former World Bank President Robert Zoellick as its transition chief for national security. Zoellick famously coined the phrase “responsible stakeholder” to describe an inducement strategy whereby democratic, capitalist nations would coax China to play a bigger role in the current international order. Republican hawks oppose Zoellick for being “soft on China,” among other issues. Jennifer Rubin, The Washington Post’s conservative opinion blogger and Republican stalwart, offered a rare rebuke of Romney, titling her post on the dustup, “Romney foreign policy misstep, a big one.”
The challenge for Republicans will be in sounding tough on China without becoming hysterical or descending into fear-mongering of the sort seen in the recent documentary “Death by China.” The film features graphics of a big Made-in-China knife stabbing into the heart of America as a way to symbolize job loss. So far they have not been successful. (Romney might also want to square his confrontational position on China with the fact that this biggest financial backer, Sheldon Adelson, made his fortune running casinos in Macau and is under investigation for bribing Chinese officials.)
Making a Complicated Case
When Democrats get together in the first week of September, their challenge will be to convey the president’s more nuanced, pragmatic record to voters and push back against Republican attacks. The Obama campaign has been touting the enforcement component of that message during stops in battleground states, including the WTO case brought against China last month for duties on American-made cars and trucks. The Obama administration has filed seven WTO cases against China during the first term, as many as the Bush administration brought against China in two terms.
The Democrats will also have to boil down into simple messaging the gains made during the Obama administration on non-currency issues such as the protection of intellectual property and market access issues. While significant progress has been made through fora such as the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, much of it is technical in nature and therefore hard to explain in a stump speech. And much more remains to be done.
Meanwhile, as the party in power, President Obama and the Democrats have to worry about U.S.-China relations in the real world. Developments in China and Chinese actions abroad can have a profound effect on the main lever of the president’s electoral fate: the economy. While there are some positive signs—Chinese investment in the U.S. is soaring, up to $8 billion already this year—growth in China, the last refuge of global demand, has begun to stumble.
China’s leaders are balancing the execution of a once-a-generation political transition with trying to rebalance their economy towards consumption. Internationally, sovereignty disputes with Japan and South China Sea nations have fed nationalism across Asia, which has the potential to flare into conflict—another contingency that could spook already jittery markets.
The next president must manage the complex U.S.-China relationship and match rhetoric against reality. But we’ll have to get through the rhetoric first.
Jacob Stokes is a research assistant at the Center for a New American Security. The views represented here are his own.