With the two campaigns in a dead heat, Democrats and Republicans are desperate for their respective candidates to win. During the final debate on Monday night, President Obama and Governor Romney will discuss foreign policy and their differing opinions on how to interact with China is assured to be a major issue. The Chinese will be listening closely and most likely hoping that Obama will counteract Romney's tough stance on China policy.
The Chinese are used to varying degrees of “China bashing” during campaign cycles. In the 2007 Democratic primaries, Obama made assertive statements to “take [China] to the mat” on the issue of undervaluing their currency. This election cycle is no different. But China’s role as a world power has increased significantly, and, consequently, GOP candidates have made their critical views on U.S.-Sino policy a more prominent campaign issue.
There is little question about Governor Mitt Romney’s views on China. He has made it abundantly clear throughout his campaign that he is in favor of new tariffs on Chinese imports and harsher punishments for violating intellectual property rights. While Romney respects the obvious value of the economic relationship China and the U.S. currently share, he believes strongly that the Chinese are unfairly taking advantage of U.S. investment and trade.
For all of Romney’s clear, if blustery, criticism on China, there is little, if any, information coming from the opposite direction. Chinese politicians and leaders, as is typical of the government (and the culture itself), make very few direct statements about foreign political candidates. So how would officials in Beijing feel towards a Romney presidency? We can infer that they will certainly not applaud his election for a few reasons.
China’s largest point of contention is Romney’s willingness to officially label China as a currency manipulator, which he claims he will do on “Day One.” This is a distinct policy difference with Obama’s administration and sanctions attached to this designation worry China. Romney states that fears of starting a trade war is limiting America’s ability to appropriately confront China on economic issues. Taking this fear out of the equation allows the U.S. more aggressive options that have the potential to upset Chinese policymakers.
The Chinese are also troubled by Romney’s apparent willingness to take harsher stances over intellectual property rights and the trade surplus. He has proposed restricting China’s presence in the U.S. market, which he believes would not only punish the Chinese but also encourage domestic job growth. If Romney wants to appear tougher on China than Obama during the general election, he will have to continue his more confrontational and forceful rhetoric. While these may just be campaign promises at this point, they are heard and analyzed in Beijing.
The Chinese realize tough talk on China is nothing new in U.S. politics and it has served many presidential candidates well. From a broad perspective, China wants a U.S. president that they can maintain an open dialogue with. This shouldn’t change drastically should Romney win but it certainly won’t strengthen the relationship if he commits to thoroughly bird-dogging China.
This approach will hamper the relationship because as China’s confidence grows, government leaders and the public increasingly take umbrage with any form of U.S. interference. Ideally, China wants the U.S. to stay out of its internal affairs and realm of influence. But China realizes this won’t be the case under either administration. Both Romney and Obama will likely maintain an increased U.S. presence in Asia, which has been a focus of Obama’s administration over the past few months. Both will pressure China, albeit to slightly varying degrees, on issues ranging from human rights to currency issues to relations with Taiwan. A laissez faire U.S. foreign policy is simply unrealistic unless Congressman Ron Paul pulls a stunning upset.
In this vein, although the Chinese leadership will deal with whoever is elected in 2012, it is assumed that they want Obama to win a second term to maintain the status quo as much as possible. Despite the administration’s recent focus on Asia, which China hopes is simply election year grandstanding, China is more familiar with the tendencies and goals of Obama and his cabinet. China doesn’t expect Romney to change the U.S.-Sino relationship radically, but he presents more questions for them. Furthermore, their own political transition is fast approaching and Beijing wants to limit as many uncertainties as possible during this period. Don’t expect any pro-Obama slogans in Mandarin, but Chinese officials will have their fingers crossed hoping Romney doesn’t win.
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