Obama vs Romney on China: Who Can Better Tame the Chinese Dragon?

Foreign policy is not a priority in the 2012 presidential elections – as a general political issue or in terms of the experiences of the candidates – but China is clearly on the minds of both Mitt Romney and President Obama.

Though China’s economy is slowing down, this titan of industrial output and economic growth, with its growing military might, remains the biggest challenge for U.S. foreign policy for the foreseeable future. The Chinese dragon now looms large in the global economic future, and China's territorial disputes with its neighbors – including the Philippines, Vietnam, and Japan – poses a challenge to the regional security of the Asia-Pacific region – all of which are issues that the next U.S. president must contend with. The question, now, is who has the better policy to tame the Chinese dragon: Obama or Romney?

For the purposes of this article, the term “tame” implies the two respective candidates’ ability to manage the major policy challenges in U.S.-China relations in the next four years in a manner that promotes U.S. interests, and the interests of American allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region.

There are three things that we should look at to test each candidate's policy. First, there’s the issue of strategic outlook, or what general game plan each candidate has planned for dealing with China over the next four years. Second, there’s economic policy; both candidates know that China has an important part to play in how the U.S. performs over the next four years, therefore, both have a plan for how they’ll handle economic relations with China. Third, there’s how Obama and Romney manage the bilateral political relationship with Beijing in relation to their broader approach to the Asia-Pacific region. Both candidatesneed to maintain peaceful relations with China, while upholding U.S. interests in their interactions with China. 

Lastly, we have the rather nebulous question of how China views the two candidates as prospective representatives of American interests. China’s media has weighed in on the 2012 elections with interest and will play a role in how this process turns out. There is a fundamental difference in how the two candidates would deal with China, policy with Romney taking the tougher and more confrontational approach, and Obama taking the softer and gentler approach to U.S.-China relations.

1. Geostrategic Outlook

Both candidates practice a form of realism in their approach to China, but both have a clear and diverging style in their individual approach. This is in light of China’s rapidly growing ability to project power and challenge U.S. dominance within the region. The key difference is the degree to which Obama and Romney have practiced or promised to practice realism in their strategic outlook for China.

During Obama’s first term in office, he has practiced a strategy of passive realism, by putting out a public message of peace and a desire to work cooperatively with China. In public statements, President Obama and his administration have professed a strong desire to work cooperatively and peacefully with China on mutual strategic interests. The most notable and recent example was seen during Xi Jinping’s visit to the U.S. this February, during which Obama noted that he would “welcome China’s peaceful rise” as a global power. The crux of the Obama strategy has been to engage Beijing in dialogue about security concerns.

More recently, however, the Obama administration has worked to strengthen its ties with allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region to strengthen the defensive capabilities of these countries against Chinese pressure – particularly in the South China Sea and East China Sea. The administration has worked to reaffirm a commitment to stay involved in the Asia-Pacific region in support of these states. This shift, according to the Los Angeles Times, has raised alarms in Beijing, as Chinese have accused the Obama administration of “scaremongering” by highlighting China’s assertive moves in regards to the disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea. The crux of the matter is that the U.S. “shadow” can be seen in the pressure felt by China in its recent territorial disputes.

In contrast, Romney has promised to be a hawkish commander-in-chief that would practices a tougher version of realism, which, according to his campaign website, would be based on the belief that:

“While the potential for conflict with an authoritarian China could rise as its power grows, the United States must pursue policies designed to encourage Beijing to embark on a course that makes conflict less likely. China must be discouraged from attempting to intimidate or dominate neighboring states. If the present Chinese regime is permitted to establish itself as the preponderant power in the Western Pacific it could close off large parts of the region to cooperative relations with the United States and the West and dim hope that economic opportunity and democratic freedom will continue to flourish across East Asia. Mitt Romney will implement a strategy that makes the path of regional hegemony for China far more costly than the alternative path of becoming a responsible partner in the international system.”

The two most discernable parts of Romney’s geostrategic outlook are based on the need to enforce a balance of power policy through the strong and visible presence of U.S. military forces in the Asia-Pacific region and strengthening economic and political ties with the countries in the region – especially with America’s allies and partner nations. This course comes from a foreign policy team that his critics have called bombastic and rigid, given the large number of neocons serving as advisors to Romney.

Obama and Romney are both realist presidents in their desire to reassert U.S. dominance in the Asia-Pacific region. The difference is that Romney promises to be tougher and to do so in a more direct fashion.

2. Economic Policy

In looking at the economic part of Obama and Romney’s approach, it is clear that Romney favors the confrontational approach, as he has promised to be tough on what he believes are China’s transgressions in its trade policies with the U.S. and the world. Meanwhile, Obama seems to be passively trying to counter the trade imbalance with China and addressing perceived transgressions – including the Chinese government’s role in subsidizing Chinese companies and keeping the exchange rate of the Chinese Renminbi artificially low.But Obama has failed to achieve any breakthroughs on any notable economic issues, as he has mostly kept the economic part of his China policy limited to protests to the Chinese government.

Romney, on the other hand, has been unabashed about calling out China for being a “cheater” and “currency manipulator” on the campaign trail, to the point to where some of his critics have called excessive and dangerous and treating China as a “unfair” economic rival.

Romney has chosen this position given that Obama has failed to be tough on China’s less-than-sterling record on playing fair in trade practices. Seeing an opening, Romney has chosen to play up his tough guy persona with regards to his China policy.

With China’s economy slowing down – which has affected the growth of the world economy – one must ponder what can be achieved by being aggressive with China on economic issues and what one can hope to gain by not being assertive on engaging China on economic relations that will profoundly affect the global marketplace given the respective size of the U.S. and Chinese economies.

3. Political Policy

So far, neither Obama nor Romney have provided any tangible points of debate, aside from the issue of human rights and being strong on asserting U.S. interests in regional security. In this regard, Obama and Romney have both claimed that they hold the mantle to being a humanitarian when dealing with China. Obama, for his part, has mostly kept a lid on U.S.-China relations by managing to minimize flare-ups with the Chinese.

The most notable case for Obama’s human rights policy towards China was that of Chen Guancheng, the blind Chinese human rights lawyer who sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing back in late April of this year, during which the Obama White House negotiated for the eventual extraction of this notable dissident from China to live in the U.S. after Chen made a daring escape from house arrest in China. Romney has criticized Obama for not being decisive in Chen’s case and other critics have lambasted Obama for not giving the Dalai Lama proper treatment, during his visits to the U.S., to avoid tensions with China.

Though these criticisms are valid as signs of a less than stellar record on Obama’s human rights record – along with the lack of priority attached to the issue in official diplomatic talks with China – they nevertheless convey a sense of diplomatic tact on the part of the Obama administration in their desire to continue dialogue with China while achieving notable victories in the process – including Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama and the successful extraction of Chen from China. It remains to be seen which one of the two candidates can handle the political side of America’s China policy for the next four years.

4. China’s Views on Obama and Romney

Based on a survey of what Chinese media has published thus far, Romney has gotten negative press, while portraying Obama as being more preferable due to his softer approach. According to Forbes magazine, China recently gave Obama a “Judas kiss” by denouncing Romney as being too tough on China and applauding Obama for being soft on China. In a recent op-ed in the China Daily, Romney was denounced for having a China policy that promises to be an “outdated manifestation of a Cold War mentality” of overtly trying to flex America’s military and economic muscle to contain China.

What does this mean for the 2012 election? China’s rather favorable view of Obama does not bode well for the current administration, as Romney now has a legitimate basis for calling himself the big kid on the block in dealing with China and bashing the President for being too soft on China. But this may not mean much in the election given the importance of the economy to the electorate and “scripted” bravado coming from the Romney campaign. Experts have called Romney’s tough guy plank as nothing more than campaign rhetoric. Christopher Johnson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies stated on NPR that “[t]here have been many presidents who came into office touting a pretty hard line toward the Chinese. And then, once arriving in office and kind of trying on the enveloping nature of the bilateral relationship, they realize that it was perhaps a more complicated situation.” Furthermore, China’s “kiss” for Obama is only a issue that policy wonks notice and debate, whereas most voters will focus on the two candidate’s prospective economic plan for the nation.

So who is the best candidate for “taming” the Chinese dragon? Neither candidate has produced any decisive achievement in making a breakthrough with China on matters that are vital to the U.S., given Obama’s non-confrontational style and Romney’s lack of real experience as a policymaker in America’s foreign policy endeavors.