With a presidential election a little more than a year away, the United States is awash in political rhetoric. Candidates from both major parties are currently embattled in the contest for nomination, and their respective platforms have been scrutinized in three debates so far – two for Republicans and one for Democrats. China has been mentioned unfavorably in each debate, but the manner in which candidates have dealt with the topic indicates a shift in U.S. presidential politics vis-à-vis Beijing.
Three years ago, then-Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney made waves when he vowed to label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office. The circumstances of the 2012 presidential contest were undoubtedly different than those of the current race; Romney was the challenger to a sitting president, and by extension a challenger to the U.S. foreign policy status quo. He was criticized by The New York Times on the left and by the Wall Street Journal on the right, both framing his position as hollow posturing. Xinhua took umbrage in a September, 2012 op-ed, calling China bashing like Romney’s “a cancer in U.S. electoral politics, seriously plaguing the relations between the two countries.”
Candidates for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination haven’t strayed too far from the Romney position, but their statements lack conviction. They have delivered, in the place of Romney’s brazen policy prescriptions, a series of tangential claims that eschew outright condemnation.
During the Fox News Republican Presidential Debate in August, moderator Bret Baier asked Senator Ted Cruz if Russia and China had committed acts of cyber war. Cruz replied that they have, but he quickly segued, speaking instead on the rise of radical Islam, and criticizing Iran. Other Republican candidates, like frontrunner Donald Trump, stopped short of full-fledged and unilateral antagonism of China.
“We don’t win anymore,” Trump lamented at August’s debate. “We lose to China. We lose to Mexico, both in trade and at the border. We lose to everybody.”
Trump’s sentiments stand in stark contrast to Romney’s harsh words. If the GOP of 2012 saw China as an existential threat to American power, today’s party is content to present it as evidence of America’s diplomatic inadequacy. For Donald Trump, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and others, China is less a target than it is a means of attacking the Obama administration. The Republican field, it seems, has lost the desire to openly needle Beijing.
Across the aisle, things are more complicated. The Democratic races for funds and “super delegates” have been dominated by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a noted China hawk. Secretary Clinton repeatedly censured Beijing on the topic of cyberattacks during her tenure in the Obama administration, but her recent comments on the issue have been mostly limited to small-venue campaign stops. It could be that the ongoing scandal surrounding Clinton’s private email server has made her loathe even to broach the subject of cybersecurity. It’s more likely, however, that she doubts China’s suitability as a straw man for the Democratic primary.
The only candidate to lambaste China at the first Democratic presidential debate was former Virginia senator Jim Webb, who broke with his competitors to do so. Webb directly addressed the Chinese government, saying, “You do not own the South China Sea. You do not have the right to conduct cyber warfare against tens of millions of Americans.” Those statements, in response to a query about American use of force in Libya, were woefully misplaced; Vox Media called Webb’s “weird China rant” an attention grab. Following his dismal debate performance, Jim Webb dropped out of the Democratic race on October 20th, though he may pursue an independent bid.
The candidate most hawkish on China during this cycle is John McAfee, the founder of McAfee Antivirus and the newly formed Cyber Party. McAfee’s views on China range from antagonistic to paranoiac – in a September 21st piece for the International Business Times, he alleges that China is hacking American smartphones through covert airline frequencies. Surely, the Chinese have reason to rejoice if their only vocal critic in the 2016 presidential race thus far is a no-name, third-party radical with a history of legal troubles and tinfoil hat conspiracy theories.
That isn’t to say, however, that things won’t heat up in the general election. In advance of the 2008 election, then-Senator Barack Obama was relatively mum on Chinese issues as a primary candidate. By during his third debate with Republican nominee John McCain, Obama made three separate mentions of China to his opponent’s two, focusing on the growing trade deficit. At the third 2012 debate between Obama and Romney, China was mentioned no fewer than 32 times, this time as an adversary in need of a trade rules refresher course.
The coming general election will almost certainly diverge from this pattern because of the footing Democrats find themselves on near the end of the Obama presidency. If Hillary Clinton secures the Democratic nomination as projected, the Republican challenger will be faced with a seasoned veteran of recent Chinese diplomacy. As an architect and executor of the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia,” Clinton has the bona fides necessary to head off most foreign policy attacks. Republicans will likely push her on Iran, Russia, ISIS and Libya, carefully avoiding East Asian policy discussions.
China’s striking absence from charged campaign rhetoric this year can be partially attributed to a decrease in perceived threat to America as Chinese economic growth slows and stock markets tumble. However, diplomatic victories shared by the Obama and Xi administrations should not be overlooked. Most notably, the two presidents have reached agreements on the issues of climate change and cyber-attacks within the past year, ushering in an era of cooperation between the two countries on a range of issues.
The remainder of election season could play out any number of ways, but it appears a safe bet that Beijing will be spared the vitriol it witnessed in recent American political contests. Whether the result of a cooling Chinese economy or meaningful advances in the bilateral relationship under presidents Obama and Xi, China policy will likely make fewer appearances on the campaign trail during the next year than it did at any time over the past decade. Rather than to take this as an indication of apathy, Beijing should celebrate this development as a sign that American politicians are finally ready to leave diplomacy to the diplomats. If true, the next American president has the chance to hit the ground running with his or her Chinese counterpart, and that would constitute a real victory.