06/09/2008 08:16 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

China and the Elections

China has not made much of an appearance in the presidential contest so far. Either of the two Chinas. I'm not talking about Mainland vs. Taiwan. I mean the two Chinas of the American imagination. There's the cute, cuddly, panda-bear China, as sweet-natured and fun-loving as Jack Black, that produces excellent dumplings, fantastical kung-fu movies, and pretty good Haier appliances. Then there's China the ogre, the fitting successor to the Soviet Union, the rising adversary that produces substandard toys, steals our jobs, abuses human rights, wants to devour Taiwan and fully digest Tibet, is rapidly building up its military, and just can't stop supporting other ogres across the seas whether in Burma or Darfur.

To the extent that the candidates have mentioned China, it's in connection to trade. Obama has written of China as a competitor that has "manipulated its currency for years in order to gain an unfair advantage over the United States in trade." McCain's support of free trade has meant pulling his punches: "It sounds like a lot of fun to bash China and others, but free trade has been the engine of our economy. Free trade should be the continuing principle that guides this nation's economy." These references to the world's fastest growing economy have been largely in passing. Neither candidate has bothered to list China on their web pages as one of their defining issues.

Although Iraq is the defining foreign policy issue so far in the presidential race, China will no doubt be smuggled into the election through this rather stark contrast between the Republicans and Democrats over trade. In their effort to woo the working class vote, both Obama and Clinton turned their back on earlier support for free trade agreements like NAFTA. To pick up all the working-class votes he needs in Ohio and elsewhere to defeat McCain, Obama will likely stress his differences with the Republican's gung-ho free trade position, and that will mean hitting China hard for the massive trade surplus it has generated with the United States. Not to be outdone in China-bashing, McCain will likely argue that China is a national security threat that requires more military spending.

At some point, the candidates will have to come to terms with the past and with Robert Cassidy. Cassidy argues that the market access agreement that the United States signed with China so that it could join the World Trade Organization (WTO) has not benefited America except for multinational corporations and financial institutions. Perhaps you've heard this opinion before. But probably not from someone like Robert Cassidy. As former assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Asia and for China, Cassidy was the lead negotiator for the market access agreement in China.

Sober reflection led Cassidy to conclude that the agreement with China did not live up to expectations. "We failed to address the underlying fundamental market distortions that skew the benefits toward the few while leaving the rest of the economy less well off," he writes in The Failed Expectations of U.S. Trade Policy. "The premise on which our trade agreements are negotiated is at best flawed, if not broken. The next administration has to take a hard look at the trade agreements currently on the table -- especially with South Korea -- and ask: who benefits? The answers should lead to a fundamental reassessment of what needs to be included in those trade agreements so that the benefits flow to broader and more equitable segments of the economy."

This isn't an invitation for China-bashing to belatedly enter the election season. Rather, an evaluation of the great sucking sound from the East -- alongside NAFTA's great sucking sound from the South -- will make trade policy a sharp dividing line between the two parties. The focus should be on how to rebuild an American economy crippled by war spending, tax cuts, and trade policy. China is just the enabler. Can the candidates address China without scapegoating it?