Every four years when the US has a presidential election, many people ask the same question: who is China's choice? This time is no exception. Given a choice, would Chinese choose Obama or Romney?
On appearance it is difficult to give a definitive answer. Four years ago, China's relationship with the Obama Administration began with much euphoria but has met with quite a few problems since. These include Tibet, arms sales to Taiwan, trade, internet freedom, exchange rate, South China Sea and others. As a result, many in both countries find the relationship in worse shape than before. Scholars like Wang Jisi and Kenneth Lieberthal even argue that strategic distrust between the two countries has grown to a worrisome degree.
If China has a problem with Obama, they also have problem with Romney. Like a typical presidential candidate, Romney has been very critical of Obama's policies, including his China policy. However, Chinese are depressed to find that he has gone out of his way in his criticism of not only Obama's China policy but also China. Among other things, he has accused Obama for being too weak on trade issues with China and said that “the Obama administration has acted like a supplicant.” And he accused China of “misappropriating western technology, blocking access to its market, and manipulating its currency." He vowed that if he gets into office he “will label China as it is, a currency manipulator” and “will go after” China for “stealing” US intellectual property.”
Choosing between Obama and Romney, therefore, appears to be a hard choice for China indeed! However, if one looks into history, one finds that the Chinese may still have good reasons to favor Obama over Romney. This is because, as far as Sino-American relations are concerned, the most important thing about the US presidential election is the political status of the party (incumbent or not) rather than the policy preference of the party (Republican or Democrat).
It is true that the Republicans and Democrats do have different preferences on US policy toward China. The history of Sino-American relations shows that a Republican Administration tends to attach more emphasis to some issues such as security and Taiwan, and less to others such as trade and human rights. This means that if Republicans are in power, the two countries are likely to have more frictions over the former set of issues and fewer frictions over the latter. By contrast, a Democrat Administration tends to attach more emphasis to trade and human rights and less to issues such as security and Taiwan. This means that, if a Democrat candidate is in power, the two countries are likely to have more frictions over the former set of issues and fewer frictions over the latter.
However, such differences in policy preferences and their impact on Sino-American relations are often exaggerated. In fact, history shows that no one in the White House neglects any set of important issues. Remember it was President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, who sent the aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait in 1996 and it was President George W. Bush, Jr., a Republican, who urged China to improve its human rights practice even on his way to attend the Beijing Olympics in 2008! History also shows that whichever party is in the White House, its China policy invariably moves toward moderation and pragmatism, and when it matures, it may not be that different from that of the other party. This can be seen if one compares US China policy toward the end of the Clinton Administration and that toward the end of the Bush Administration. They almost look the same!
Compared to the policy factor, the incumbency factor probably matters more. That is, the election of the opposition party’s candidate tends to affect Sino-American relations much more than that of the incumbent party. And, moreover, such an influence tends to be negative rather than positive. This hypothesis can be repeatedly tested in history. It was the case with the election of Ronald Reagan. It was the case with Bill Clinton. And it was also the case with George W. Bush, Jr. And the reverse is also true, most typically with the case of George Bush, Sr. after Ronald Reagan. Under normal circumstances, therefore, if China prefers stability and the healthy development of Sino-American relations following a US presidential election, he or she should vote for the incumbent party's candidate.
Why does the election of an incumbent party's candidate in the United States favor Sino-American relations more than that of an opposition party's candidate? With hindsight, one can identify three major factors that account for this phenomenon; namely, the nature of election politics, the political dynamics of US China policy, and the power transition following the election itself.
To begin with, an incumbent party's candidate is preferable because of the nature of the election politics. In seeking power in the White House, the opposition party's candidate invariably feels the need to criticize and even condemn the incumbent party's policies, including its China policy. It is necessary because the opposition often does see things differently and has genuine policy differences. It is also necessary because, as an opposition party candidate, if you say you agree with the incumbent party on policies, there is no point for you to ask people to elect you to the White House in the first place.
Criticism alone, of course, is not enough. As the opposition party's candidate, you need to present your own policy preferences and argue why they are infinitely better than the existing policies. Then you promise the electorate that, if you get into the White House, you are going to change the existing policies and implement those of your own. Once elected to the White House, you are obliged to make the policy changes because you want to keep the support of your electorate by being consistent and honest. Such policy changes are welcome if the existing policies really do need fixing. However, sometimes the existing policies do not really need fixing and your efforts to change existing policies may cause serious as well as unnecessary problems. This is often the case with the US China policy.
In the second place, the incumbent party's candidate is preferable because of the political dynamics of US China policy. History shows that the opposition party tends to argue that the incumbent party's China policy is too soft on China and therefore urge for a tougher policy: Reagan versus Carter, Clinton versus Bush, Sr. or Bush, Jr. versus Al Gore. This is in part because China is a big country with a different official ideology, a different political system, and a different level of economic development. As a big country, Americans have to pay attention to China. As a country with a different official ideology and political system, they may not like many of the things for which China stands.
And as a developing country caught in fundamental historical transitions, China itself has many problems. Such problems include official corruption, poor practice of rule of law, environmental pollution, and human rights violation. Neither the Chinese nor the Americans like these problems. However, they differ in terms of their priorities and strategies in tackling these problems.
As a result of these and other factors, almost at any given time, the opposition party can find ample ammunition to attack the incumbent party either for colluding with China or being soft on China. The most famous or infamous example of this was Bill Clinton’s condemnation of George Bush, Sr. for kowtowing to the “butchers” in Beijing during the presidential campaign in 1991. Although Clinton's comment was extreme because the election campaign happened not long after the Tiananmen Incident, this is the kind of criticism one often hears during US presidential elections.
Finally, the incumbent party's candidate is preferable also because of the power-transition factor. For Sino-American relations to work smoothly, officials on both sides need to develop good person-to-person relations with each other and some tacit understandings on various issues. These can only be developed after you have been in office for a while. Therefore, when the opposition party candidate gets into office, the new people that he brings into the government do not usually have good relations. After all, these people have been outside government for at least four years. Although they may have followed what is going on in Sino-American relations in general and may pick up an “inside” piece of information here or there, they do not really know either the whole picture or sufficient detail. Neither do they have the same kind of person-to-person relationships with their Chinese counterparts as their predecessors. Moreover, in a great hurry to get on to other things and, for various other reasons, the departing officials usually fail to brief the incoming ones adequately. Accordingly, when the new people get into office, they often do not know their Chinese counterparts as well as they should and are not fully aware of the tacit understandings between the two countries. As a result, they tend to run into some communication problems, if not frictions, with their Chinese counterparts during the initial period of the relationship.
Together, these three factors make it almost certain that, whenever the opposition party’s candidate gets into the White House, Sino-American relations are heading for some problems at least during the initial year or two.
The previous analysis suggests that, if one wishes stability of China-US relations, one would favor the incumbent party’s candidate over that of the opposition. Since instability in China-US relations damages the interests of China as well as the US, I believe a Chinese choice between the two candidates can only be Barack Obama.
Jia Qingguo, is a Professor and Associate Dean of the School of International Studies of Peking University. He is member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the CPPCC National Committee and a member of the Standing Committee of the China Democratic League.