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Opinion: China policy volatile in US election
By Yuan Peng (China Daily)
Updated: 2004-07-28 11:28

With the lead up to the US presidential election hitting fever pitch, Chinese are becoming increasingly concerned about whether Washington's China policy will be used for political gain or whether some conservative forces in the United States will instigate a new anti-China campaign.

Raising these two questions seem particularly natural for the Chinese who have followed the past two decades of US presidential campaigning.

Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States in 1979, it has become common practice for the Republican or Democratic presidential candidate to severely criticize the China policies of the incumbent government when the two parties are struggling for power.

In the 1992 election, Democratic candidate Bill Clinton reproached Republican President George Bush for the latter's efforts to be on "friendly terms" with China.

Eight years later, Bush's son, George W. Bush, as the Republican candidate, lashed out at the Clinton administration for its "appeasement" towards Beijing, which Bush said remained as Washington's largest strategic competitor.

It is also very common for other topics, such as China's so-called "involvement in US political endowment" and "spying" on the United States, to be regarded as effective weapons for one party when attempting to derail its political foes during an election.

Thus, it is not strange that Washington's policy towards China usually falls victim to electioneering. As a result, Sino-US bilateral ties suffer.

In fact, the "China symptom" has developed into an incurable ailment for the United States during its presidential elections.

It is sure to happen again this year, but with some differences.

Most Americans have centred their political concerns on the Iraq issue, the domestic economic situation and related issues, such as the war on terrorism, the Korean Peninsula nuclear situation, foreign policy towards Iran, reduction in taxes, employment and homosexuality.

Polls have shown that the Iraq issue, counter-terrorism and a domestic economic recovery are the top priorities, which will undoubtedly help dilute citizens' concern about China-related issues.

With more than 30 years of development since diplomatic normalization, Sino-US bilateral ties, consolidated by recent co-operation on anti-terrorism and the Korean nuclear issue, are now in a comparatively good shape.

In recent years, China has accomplished remarkable progress both politically and economically, leaving little excuse for the United States to ideologically assault China. This "positive factor" in Sino-US relations has seldom been seen in past US election years.

However, that does not mean that no major friction exists between the two countries, or that the Bush administration's policy towards China is accepted by its domestic opposition.

With the presidential struggle drawing nearer, Sino-US disputes in the following fields may be highlighted.

The US trade imbalance with China will possibly be utilized by the Democrats to lash out at the Bush administration.

According to the latest US statistics, the US trade deficit with China is as much as US$124 billion. The Democratic Party, which represents the lower and middle classes in the United States, has expressed dissatisfaction towards the huge imbalance, and accuses President Bush of getting anti-terrorism assistance from China by sacrificing domestic economic interests.

At the same time, the revaluation of China's currency, its trade policy and the treatment of its labour force may possibly become targets of attack due to the bad prospects for employment in the United States.

The Taiwan question still remains as the bone of contention between the two nations.

If the cross-Straits situation further deteriorates, it is expected that the different stances between the two parties in the United States will push the Taiwan question further into the spotlight during election campaigning.

China's military modernization is likely to become a topic for mutual attack during the election.

In the opinion of US rightist forces, China has injected a lot of money it has earned from trading with Washington into its military upgrade.

With the European Union wanting to suspend its arms sales ban on China, the United States is embroiled in discussion over whether it should reconsider a new sanction against Beijing.

In addition, the United States' reaction to China's rising influence in the international community and how the two nations can maintain a beneficial strategy in the Asia-Pacific region have also become hotly debated over the past year.

Well known for its long-held tough policy towards China, the Bush administration has based its China concept on its belief that China remains as Washington's "strategic competitor."

Despite its tangible co-operation with China on anti-terrorism and efforts to defuse the nuclear stalemate on the Korean Peninsula, the Bush administration has not fundamentally changed its policy of attaching importance to US allies, supporting Taiwan and holding misgivings towards Beijing.

Different from Bush, Democratic candidate John Kerry has been friendly towards China. He can comprehend China's increased influence in Asia and globally.

It is Kerry's opinion that the US should fully back the one-China policy and oppose "Taiwan independence." He strongly advocates the United States looking at its common interests as well as conflicts with China in a rational way.

But that does not mean the United States will automatically change its Chinese policies and improve its relations with Beijing if Kerry becomes president.

Representing the middle and lower classes, Kerry, if he succeeds, will possibly step up efforts to solve the US trade imbalance with China - a highly complicated issue.

The Taiwan question, under a Kerry administration, will still be the fundamental obstacle to improved Sino-US relations.

It is expected that the Republican-controlled Congress will force the Democratic administration into concession on the one-China policy and the US' arming of Taiwan, thus creating a bigger obstacle to the Chinese mainland's settlement of the question.

Despite its negative policy towards China, the Bush administration has put Sino-US relations on a track of normal development through four years of engagement.

In the long run, a US pursuing international co-operation and multilateralism will be more beneficial to world peace and Sino-US relations.

(The author is a researcher at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.)

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