After Mitt Romney's comments in the first presidential debate and what later followed in his robust foreign policy speech this Monday, the American electorate is going to learn a new word: Sinophobia.
Sinophobia can be defined as a government’s fear or dislike of China, its people, or its policies. At the first presidential debate in Denver, Colorado last week, twice Romney came out tough on relations with China. First, on trade Romney said he would “crack down on China if and when they cheat.” Second, on cutting the budget he said he would not fund programs “to borrow money from China to pay for.” This Monday speaking at Virginia Military Institute he took a different angle, describing the tone in Asia and across the Pacific, "where China’s recent assertiveness is sending chills through the region." Even for those uninformed on the trade disputes and the ongoing arguments over China's territorial sovereignty and maritime rights, the former governor’s statements have been attention-grabbing.
For one, they distinguished him as tough on business and negotiation. With the number one concern of voters being the economy, business acumen can certainly give a candidate an electability advantage. There’s also an element of nationalism in bashing China. After two wars and the Great Recession, a way to alleviate the wavering perception of American resolve — both at home and abroad — is to find someone to blame. But calling China a cheat isn’t so much schoolyard mentality as it is an ethical reality for Romney. That question of economic fair play was juxtaposed by his political statement on China's 'assertiveness' in Asia and the Pacific. Without a doubt, China has become a key talking point in his race for the presidency.
However, Romney’s words have not well-received by the ablest of America’s diplomats. Former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger (who fostered U.S.-China relations under President Richard Nixon) found the campaign message “extremely deplorable.” At a discussion at the Wilson Center in Washington last week, Kissinger went as far back as President Reagan to say that a number of presidential campaigns have unfairly characterized the U.S.-China relationship, wanting “to turn this into a crusade.” It wasn’t just limited to Republicans. Kissinger also reprimanded President Clinton and President Obama from heading down that poll-driven path.
Current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also sought to tone down rhetoric that plays into the notion of a pseudo-Cold War with China. In an address at the U.S. Naval Academy in April, Secretary Clinton made abundantly clear that, “Today’s China is not the Soviet Union. We are not on the brink of a new Cold War in Asia.” Even former presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman, in all irony, was the least tough on China than all of his Republican counterparts during the primaries. The ex-Ambassador to China from 2009-2011 stressed on “managing a very complicated relationship” rather than labeling the country a currency manipulator, something which Romney pledges to do on his first day of office.
These diplomats seem to know something we don’t. But polls like it.
A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted Sept. 26-30 overwhelmingly shows Romney as more competent in “dealing with the economic challenges we face from China” than President Obama by a margin of eight points. It’s likely that in the run up to the debate, Romney sought to reap dividends off that lead. In fact, governments around the world are gaining political capital by getting vocal on China.
In Brazil, the left-wing Worker’s Party has backpedaled on relations with China to get in the good graces of domestic manufacturers, insisting on ‘voluntary’ reductions on Chinese imports as intra-regional trade has suffered. Across the globe in Indonesia, resource nationalism has grown as a useful campaign tool ahead of the presidential election in 2014, where candidates have threatened to restrict exports to coal-hungry countries like China by passing new laws and taxes. The most notable example has been the 2011 presidential victory of Michael Sata in Zambia where the Patriotic Front party ran exclusively on an anti-Chinese platform, unseating the incumbent party with nearly a 7% lead.
Around the world, anti-Chinese platforms have emerged as more than just catering to populism and domestic industry, but to large-scale opportunities for opposition parties to unseat incumbents and take control. So far, we’ve only seen Romney’s Sinophobia grant positive polling numbers and incur ill will from grizzled diplomats. The interesting thing to watch will be public opinion. What will slowly be achieved is an American consensus, albeit one that falls more on the hard-line than on the temperate side of the scale. While Romney can surely benefit from that momentum, it is uncertain how he will manage what may become of it internationally if he assumes the presidency.