Since the beginning of the formal Sino-US relationship, China has always followed the US presidential elections with a degree of trepidation and a clearly preferred candidate. In this election however, both candidates seem set to follow similar policies leaving China with little discernable difference between the two.
It was almost at the very beginning of the formal Sino-US diplomatic relationship that China learned a lesson about the impact of US presidential elections on that country’s China policy. In the election of 1980, Ronald Reagan held a starkly different position on the issue of Taiwan from Jimmy Carter. Reagan’s rhetoric and eventual victory in the election caused great concern in China over the future of the then newly normalized relationship. With that in mind, once every four years, China becomes more or less nervous about the possible change of US China policy as a result of the election. A different man from the different party sitting in the Oval Office could mean a different and, more often than not, harsher policy for at least a period of months into the new presidency. Usually, China prefers one of the two major presidential candidates, because often times, they have different attitudes toward China, one less friendly than the other.
In a way, this year’s election looks like a normal one, with Mitt Romney from the beginning choosing to play the tougher guy, as challengers always did. He, among others in the GOP primaries, except former ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, conveniently seized upon China and President Obama’s China policy as easy targets, accusing China of, among other things, manipulating its currency, taking advantage of its unfair trade practices, and saying Obama was too soft and appeasing toward the rising power in Asia. Romney went as far as to say repeatedly on the campaign trail that on day one of his presidency, he would label China as a “currency manipulator”, a step that no president until now has taken even under the pressure of Congress, because it will hurt not only Chinese but American business. Romney may bet that given the tough economic situation, voters will love this kind of harsh rhetoric, especially when they see China as part of the problem rather than part of the answer. He also said he would directly counter “abusive Chinese practices” in the area of intellectual property and would seek to form a “Reagan Economic Zone” to which China is unlikely to have access to “knit together the entire region”, limiting China’s ability to “coerce other countries”.
The economic relationship is not the only frontline, although the economy is the number one issue in the election. Romney slashed China on human rights and its political system, and in the area of national security, he can’t afford to show any weakness as the Republican candidate. This has led Romney to state that he wants to maintain a strong military presence in the Pacific and accepts no cuts in defense spending, so that the US can counter the “challenge posed by China’s build-up”.
It is fair to say that as campaign rhetoric, Romney’s words are more targeted at his competitor, Barack Obama, than at China. He criticized Obama for being “a near supplicant to Beijing” and demurring from raising issues of human rights; showing weakness that encouraged Chinese assertiveness and made US allies question American “staying power in East Asia”.
However, Romney’s effort to make a contrast to Obama is not so successful. For his part, Obama rejected the idea that China is a political vulnerability for him. Knowing he could gain politically by bashing China in this election, Obama has been trying to prove by words and deeds that, instead of kowtowing to China as Romney’s campaign suggested, he actually is quite a tough US president when it comes to China. As a matter of fact, Obama has managed to do this more effectively than those on-the-defensive predecessors.
As he announced in this year’s State of the Union Address, the Obama administration has filed twice as many trade cases against China as George W. Bush did, and a trade enforcement unit has been established to monitor “unfair trade practices” by countries like China. In Obama’s campaign ads, Romney’s experience at Bain Capital was depicted as “exporting American jobs” to China. With rebalancing to Asia, Obama flexed US muscles in China’s neighborhood and repeated assurance by administration officials and top generals that defense budget cuts won’t influence America’s presence in the Asia Pacific makes Romney’s criticism sound rather weak.
When Obama was first elected almost four years ago, there was craziness about him both at home and abroad. Today that memory is still vivid, but in different areas in Sino-US relations Obama has been doing what a US president would do, so as China sees it now, he is hardly different. His China policy carries features of a typical one, fitting more into the mainstream American strategic thinking about China than the rosy pictures people had when he first came into office, and it doesn’t seem likely the policy will change its direction if he has four more years.
And the question about Romney is, if elected, would he be out of that mainstream on China policy and much tougher toward China? On personal level, shrewd, cautious and businessman-like as he is, it’s hard to imagine Romney would jeopardize a bilateral relationship as important as US-China. Inexperienced in foreign policy, he would depend a lot on his advisers, some of whom tend to be hawkish towards China and some not. By appointing Bob Zoellick as the head of his foreign policy and national security transition team, Romney showed that he holds respect for those “realistic Republicans” who are known as balanced on China and may not be totally serious about the campaign rhetoric. After all, policy is different from politics, and a president is different from a candidate.
In the past two US presidential elections, China was not such a prominent topic and it was a little hard to tell which candidates China preferred. This time, the topic of China looms larger, but more importantly for China policy, a pragmatic approach with engaging and hedging combined has been widely accepted by both parties. Although China has been made into a prominent issue, the two sides in the election don’t show much substantive difference. So does China have a preference in the US election this year? Maybe not that much.
Wang Wenfeng is the Deputy Director of the Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.