The 2012 presidential campaign is speeding toward its climax. With the Obama and Romney campaigns blasting away at each other, U.S.-China relations may become collateral damage. Life appears to be imitating art: Christopher Buckley's latest novel involves a political plot by a defense contractor to inflate bilateral tensions for profit. It is in both countries' interests that whoever is elected in November drops the super-heated campaign rhetoric as soon as the election concludes.
The People's Republic of China long has been a convenient political target. Despite the obvious benefits of a bilateral relationship which is both peaceful and profitable, for years U.S. presidential candidates have sought to win political points by criticizing Beijing. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all ran for president as sharp critics of the PRC.
However, once the election was past administrations usually shifted to a more pragmatic policy approach. Observed Uri Dadush of the Carnegie Endowment, "presidents tend to recognize that the Chinese don't react well when you point a gun to their head." Irrespective of party affiliation, the new presidents realized that the bilateral relationship was too important to sacrifice. But their willingness to work with Beijing triggered the cycle anew, with the next set of candidates engaging in a new round of China-bashing.
So the cycle continues today.
Candidate Barack Obama termed President George W. Bush "a patsy" in dealing with China and promised to go "to the mat" with China over its trade practices. The Obama administration began by emphasizing economics and trade. For instance, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner charged China with "manipulating" its currency.
However, administration claims seemed to grow less shrill as Washington issued more debt. Moreover, perhaps in part in reaction against the use of democracy by George W. Bush and the neoconservatives to justify promiscuous war-making, the Obama administration played down human rights issues. Explained Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, "We have to continue to press them. But our pressing on those issues can't interfere" with cooperation on other matters.
Controversies in the South China Sea led to greater discord. Despite Chinese protests, the administration addressed complicated territorial disputes and enunciated a so-called pivot toward Asia. The PRC's state-run media charged that Secretary Clinton was "a person who deeply reinforces U.S.-China mutual suspicion" who "has brought new and extremely profound mutual distrust between the mainstream societies of the two countries."
Washington and Beijing also disagreed over the best approach to Syria. The PRC rebuffed Washington's attempt to place greater pressure on Damascus, leading Secretary Clinton to denounce Beijing's actions as "just despicable."
Nevertheless, the administration maintained a solid working relationship with China. On her way to the PRC in early September, Secretary Clinton observed: "Even when we disagree -- believe me we can talk very frankly now -- we can explore the toughest issues without imperiling the whole relationship." The administration also left the disagreements out of the campaign. The president treated them as policy rather than political issues.
However, Mitt Romney began attacking the PRC during the primaries (as did several other Republican candidates). He decried Beijing for engaging "in behavior that undermines international security" and promised to adopt policies to check its "harmful ambitions" and encourage "the evolution of China toward a more politically open and democratic order." He also warned of the risk of a "Chinese century," criticized Secretary Clinton for relegating "the future of freedom to second or third place," denounced the Obama administration for being a "near supplicant to Beijing," and claimed that administration "weakness" had "only encouraged Chinese assertiveness."
Romney ostentatiously targeted trade with China. He claimed that Beijing was a "cheater" and promised to label it as a "currency manipulator" on day one. He decried America's "trade surrender." After wrapping up the nomination he ran ads promising to "make China play by the rules." Romney attacked the administration for not being tough enough on China's alleged unfair trade practices, especially the failure to cite Beijing as being a currency "manipulator." He called the president the "outsourcer-in-chief" who had reneged on his promise to cut back borrowing from "the bank of China."
The administration returned fire. Treasury Secretary Geithner rejected the idea that "you can solve problems in the world, a very complicated world we live in, by calling people names." The president criticized Romney's stewardship of Bain Capital, and especially its investment in Chinese firms and outsourcing of jobs to China.
The administration also claimed to be filing cases before the World Trade Organization at a higher rate than the Bush administration. In fact, the administration initiated two new WTO cases against Beijing since July. Most recently Washington attacked Chinese subsidies for its auto and auto parts industries. The administration also renewed tire tariffs set to expire last month.
Both sides are featuring China in their campaign ads. Noted Ramesh Ponnuru in Bloomberg: "If you live in Ohio or Wisconsin and own a television, you might be under the impression that America's main foreign enemies are the exporters of China."
China did not ignore these mutual barrages. In September it filed its second WTO case against America within a month, contending that antidumping and countervailing duties imposed by the administration violated international trade rules. As for Romney, declared the official Chinese news service Xinhua: "It is rather ironic that a considerable portion of this China-battering politician's wealth was actually obtained by doing business with Chinese companies before he entered politics." China Daily wrote: "By any standard, the U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's China policy, as outlined on his official campaign website, is an outdated manifestation of a Cold War mentality."
Worse could come. Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies warned of a potential shift in Chinese foreign policy: "The US Asia pivot has triggered an outpouring of anti-American sentiment in China that will increase pressure on China's incoming leadership to stand up to the United States. Nationalistic voices are calling for military countermeasures to the bolstering of America's military posture in the region and the new US defense strategic guidelines."
However, while the two leading presidential candidates play to America's worst political demons, the U.S. public supports a more measured approach. A new Pew Research Center poll found that 58 percent favor being "tough" on China on trade, but respondents did not see the PRC as a security threat, ranking it behind Islamic extremism, Iran, North Korea, financial instability, and drug violence in Mexico. The poll also found that 55 percent supported a "strong relationship" between the U.S. and China; nearly two-thirds believed that the relationship was sound.
Much obviously is at stake as the two governments attempt to work through sometimes contentious differences. Even though the next administration is likely to adopt pragmatic engagement toward China, years of hostile rhetoric risk pushing policy in both nations to the extreme.
The task before Washington and Beijing is to peacefully accommodate each other's security requirements, economic interests, and geopolitical ambitions. On her recent trip to China, Secretary Clinton summarized the challenge: "Our two nations are trying to do something that has never been done in history. Which is to write a new answer to the question of what happens when an established power and a rising power meet." For the sake of their respective peoples -- and many others around the world -- that answer must be peaceful cooperation.