The U.S. presidential race to date has seen its fair share of China-bashing. Campaign-watchers have heard former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum call for going “to war with China” to “make America the most attractive place in the world to do business.” Former Texas Governor Rick Perry predicted that Communist China would end up on the “ash heap of history” because of the one-child policy. In probably the most absurd statement, Congresswoman Michelle Bachman praised China’s weak social safety net as part of a larger argument about Chinese economic dominance, “They don’t have the modern welfare state, and China’s growing,” Bachman argued.
But the candidate who has spent the most time articulating a China policy is Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and presumptive Republican nominee. Romney’s advisors dedicated three-plus pages of his foreign policy white paper to the subject. Romney has penned two op-eds on China: one in the Washington Post last October that focused on trade policy and a widely read piece in the Wall Street Journal last February entitled, “How I’ll Respond to China’s Rising Power.” Romney also frequently addressed the subject in the more than 25 GOP primary debates and in a major foreign policy address last October.
Broadly, Romney views the Sino-American relationship as zero-sum and destined for strategic confrontation. Specifically, Romney promises that, if he’s elected, the 21st century will be an “American century,” not a “Chinese century.” He also promises to get tough on China on “day one” by labeling China out as a currency manipulator (although that promise goes against his earlier record on trade enforcement and the positions taken by his top trade policy advisor).
Commentaries in the Chinese press have derided Romney’s positions on China. A piece in the People’s Daily Overseas Edition, the Chinese Communist Party organ, sniped that, “Even some of the US' allies regard these unscrupulous and irresponsible attacks on its imaginary enemies as nonsense.” As for Romney’s remarks on currency issues, a Foreign Ministry spokesman called Romney’s stance “irresponsible” and a Xinhua report characterized his stance as an “absurd” attempt to play on the fears of U.S. voters.
While President Barack Obama has not shifted into official campaign mode yet, the White House has begun talking more frequently about its record of combating unfair Chinese trade practices. Two paragraphs of this year’s State of the Union Address were devoted to the topic, and the speech included the announcement of a new Trade Enforcement Unit designed to coordinate efforts across federal agencies. Although the administration chose to highlight those efforts, trade enforcement is hardly a new concern. As Bruce Stokes of the German Marshall Fund has found, the Obama administration has brought more major trade actions against China than any of its predecessors.
Those efforts come on top last November’s whirlwind rollout of the Asia “pivot,” which featured a series of economic, diplomatic and strategic moves designed to signal that U.S. attention was “rebalancing” to the Asia-Pacific. Also worth noting in the campaign context was China’s decision to reengage in military-to-military talks—however reluctantly and unenthusiastically– last December, and presumptive Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington in February. Xi’s visit was designed for the current and future leadership of the two nations to become familiar with one another and increase mutual understanding. Those events set the state on which the election-year discussion of China policy will occur.
The last two months have been largely quiet when it comes to China rhetoric from the campaigns and the White House, as the primary campaign has rolled into its final stages, and Iran and Syria consumed the lion’s share of diplomatic and military attention abroad. Meanwhile, the politics of China’s leadership transition have blown wide open as the Bo Xilai scandal provides a window into corruption and challenges to the rule of law at some of the highest ranks of the Chinese Communist Party. Not since Tiananmen have the Party’s internal fissures been so publicly displayed.
The Bo scandal, combined with continued tensions in the bilateral relationship, will create more pressure for the candidates to take a confrontational approach to China. It is easy to see how issues such as China’s continued support of the North Korea regime, ongoing disputes in the South China Sea and continued Chinese cyber misbehavior will exacerbate that trend.
So where will the election-year discussion of China go from here?
Expect to see more chest-thumping from Romney—he’s slated to give a major foreign policy speech in April or May—as he tries to chip away at Obama’s high poll numbers on national security. Romney will likely also argue that his trade policies would bring back jobs that have left U.S. shores. For his part, Obama can point to his strong record on China, one which combines a combination of engagement and enforcement aimed at getting China to “play by the rules” across the board – diplomatically, economically, militarily and on human rights issues. Expect Obama to explain how his Asia policy includes revamped relationships with allies in the region and concerted efforts to create stronger ties with countries like Vietnam. He’ll also point to expanding regional trade ties through the US-South Korea free trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and efforts to ensure market access in China.
Ultimately, the 2012 U.S. presidential election will have a long-term effect on Sino-American relations to the degree that it increases or decreases strategic mistrust between the two countries. The Chinese leadership understands that the rough and tumble of U.S. politics is often more smoke than fire—that most heated rhetoric gets moderated when it runs up against the demands of real-world policy making.
But a political discussion that frames the relationship between the two countries as an exclusively zero-sum competition, one that mirrors the ideological and strategic dimensions of the Cold War–instead of a process of managing differences and identifying common interests–risks creating an atmosphere of strategic distrust that will do long-lasting damage in relations with China. While it’s essential for the U.S. leaders to stand firmly in support of American interests and values, candidates should be wary of letting political point-scoring damage the world’s most important bilateral relationship.
Jacob Stokes is a policy analyst at the National Security Network and editor of the international affairs blog DemocracyArsenal.org
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Cheng Li Director, Brookings Institution