After a U.S. strategic shift towards Asia under President Obama, bilateral relations with our East Asian partners are stronger than ever. Still, this hasn’t stopped both Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney and Obama from ratcheting up the anti-China rhetoric on the campaign trail. While presidential candidates have traditionally sought increased cooperation with China after harsh critiques during the election, the “tough on China” act may undermine future U.S.-China relations.
While China bashing has been a common theme in presidential elections since the 1980s, a slow economy and flagging job creation numbers have made attacks on Chinese currency manipulation particularly relevant in 2012. Romney has come out strongly against “unfair” U.S.-China exchange rates created by Chinese currency manipulation, and during the final presidential debate promised to, “on day one … label [China] a currency manipulator, which allows us to apply tariffs where they’re taking jobs.” Given Chinese denials of currency manipulation, a gradual appreciation of the Yuan against the dollar in recent years, and research debunking the direct link between the U.S.-China trade debt and weak Chinese currency, these comments are sure to rankle Chinese following the election.
Both candidates have also talked about the need to be tough with China on the issue of trade. According to Romney, “companies have shut down and people have lost their jobs because China has not played by the same rules.” In September, Obama also brought a new case against China to the World Trade Organization. Neither candidate is entirely wrong about trade issues – the Chinese government does subsidize many Chinese industries, and foreign companies often find it difficult to break into the Chinese market. Still, the enduring reality of huge numbers of workers willing to accept low wages in China means that tweaking trade policy will do little to bring outsourced jobs back to the U.S.
So why all this harsh rhetoric? Given the American public’s hawkish attitude toward China, tough talk is an easy way for both candidates to score points. According to a September 2012 survey by the Pew Center, 68% of Americans feel that the U.S. cannot trust China much or at all, and more Americans name China as “the greatest danger to the U.S.” than any other country. These attitudes are only reinforced as candidates expound upon the theme of China as a job-stealing adversary.
Many Chinese observers recognize that this rhetoric has little connection to either candidate’s plans for governing. According to a report on state news agency Xinhua, the comments on China were nothing but "a vanity fair for China-bashers competing to flex their muscles on China." Despite the measured official response, harsh rhetoric on China has contributed to a negative view of the U.S.-China relationship among many Chinese. According to a recent Pew poll, while 68% of Chinese labeled the relationship with the U.S. “cooperative” in 2010, only 39% felt the same way in 2012.
Still, Chinese generally still seem to feel that a second Obama term would be the best election outcome. If Romney is elected, he will have to find a way to backtrack on his most hawkish rhetoric, or risk provoking a trade war by labeling China a currency manipulator. With a power transition approaching in China, the Chinese government may also prefer to continue its general smooth relations with the Obama administration.
Whatever the outcome of the election, our president will preside over $500 billion in trade with China. With so little benefit to anti-China rhetoric, and the potential for increased mistrust between the two countries, whoever is sworn into office in 2013 would do well to prioritize cooperative relations with China.