Obama vs Romney: On China, Both Candidates Fall Woefully Short

The third presidential debate got the two candidates fired up about the Middle East, with each of them fighting to say the last word and sound more aggressive in their foreign policy strategies than the other. However, when it came to the topic of China, neither candidates was able to distinguish themselves with a unique argument.

It seems as though China has become the piñata in this election; China-bashing syndrome has become an agreed upon strategy for both campaigns. Both candidates acknowledge that jobs are being created and invested overseas, understand that the United States has to take some sort of action to deal with China’s rise, and are ready to challenge China’s unfair trade practices. Yet, neither of them talked about how Sino-U.S. relations are heavily reliant on cooperation, both economically and diplomatically. Not only do we rely on trade transactions with China, but we also need them to work with us in the international community. Syria can’t be dealt with effectively if China and Russia are synchronized to vote down any efforts for intervention.

With that said, the similarities in political stances make up only a piece of the puzzle. It is their rhetoric that will shape much of the dialogue in Sino-U.S. relations.

Romney: Throughout his campaign and debates, he has addressed China as a “currency manipulator” and aims to make China “abide to the rules.” Romney’s argument is that the current administration is too soft towards China. He says he will force China to follow the rules of international trade and investment: no more theft of intellectual property, no more unfair subsidies for state-owned firms, no more predatory pricing. With Romney’s military emphasis towards Sino-U.S. relations, Romney’s goals are more unilateral and it appears as though he is shifting foreign policy attitudes back to the way the Bush administration had it. He addresses the idea of democracy in the global community - and uses that to hint that countries that aren’t democratic will not be able to handle issues like theft of intellectual property, unfair subsidies for state-owned firms, or predatory pricing. His approach is to sound more nationalistic with a “new sheriff in town” attitude.

Much of Romney’s policies are tailored in containment efforts towards China’s rise. Despite all the accusations and goals, it is important to realize that Romney’s campaign promise to “contain” China’s rise is neither pragmatic nor realistic. He will mostly likely have to back down from accusing China of being a “currency manipulator” because such an accusation will only create a trade war in tariffs between the two countries. Sino-U.S. relations are so integrated in both economies that risking any chance of threat in that element will be struck down or backed away from. Therefore, even if Romney were in office, much of his China policy would not differ drastically from the current approach.

Obama: Throughout his presidency and debates, he has addressed China as a “responsible stakeholder that plays by the rules.” Obama’s packaging is different than Romney’s because he appears as though United States is aiming to engage with China through a multilateral approach. Obama’s presidency gives the impression that United States aims to walk in parallel with Chinese interests and hopes to work with China’s “peaceful” rise. Nonetheless, in Obama’s rhetoric, he still emphasizes how jobs are being shipped overseas. Emphasis should not be on sequestering jobs in the U.S., but rather increasing domestic investments.

During the campaign season, Obama decided to file trade complaints in China’s auto-industry even though it is not one of China’s main production sectors. Based on the time the complaint was announced and why it was filed, it appears as if it was made more for PR reasons than actual regulation purposes. The U.S. has also initiated a pivot to Asia by increasing naval presence by sixty percent in the region. Therefore, Obama’s foreign policy is more realist than the rhetoric he uses to the international community. The actual policies contain an increase of military presence in the Southeast region and stringency in trade regulation. Any accusation that the current U.S. foreign policy is too soft is simply a misconception.

In midst of the U.S. presidential elections, China is also going through a leadership transition. By March 2013, seventy percent of the current Chinese government will change, giving the United States a nearly clean slate to work with. Sino-U.S. relations should not be centered around attempts to control China’s growth, but rather work with China for effective negotiations. Increasing environmental trade barriers rather than filing trade complaints is more pragmatic (and more useful) because trade barriers actually affects the daily trade transaction between both countries. Furthermore, the way China sees United States’ foreign policy is also important in forecasting the future of the U.S. economy. China’s economic issue lies in that fact that they lack domestic economic demand. If China increases their domestic economic demand, the United States can assume that China’s domestic economy will demand US goods as well. Therefore, to preserve an open global economic system, the United States can not package foreign policy as containment efforts, but rather must embrace China’s rise and push for diplomatic and economic cooperation.