Presidential candidates' harsh rhetoric about Sino-US ties just meant to win votes and would prove disastrous if pursued
It remains to be seen if US President Barack Obama will stay for another term in office or the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a Mormon, will triumph. Yet, for the Chinese, perhaps the greatest concern regarding the US presidential election is about the effect it will have on relations between China and the United States.
As can be safely presumed amid the US' faltering economic recovery and high rate of unemployment, China will be a hot topic in the election campaign. Already, frictions have arisen between China and the US in one trade dispute after another. And Romney, to differentiate his China policies from Obama's and curry favor with hard right-wing elements in the Republican Party, has said he will label China a "currency manipulator" on his first day in office.
The Chinese people, for their part, have become inured to such campaign talk from American politicians. Since the end of the Cold War, both Democratic and Republican politicians have cited former US policies toward China in attempts to rake up unsavory parts of each other's pasts.
Two classic examples of this came in the 1992 and 2000 general elections. In the first of those years, Bill Clinton, then the Democratic presidential candidate, described George H.W. Bush's China policy both as being ill-advised and unsuccessful, and called for China to meet additional conditions if it were to maintain its most-favored-nation trade status. Not to be outdone, the camp of George W. Bush in 2000 attacked the Clinton administration's policies on China, saying they were feeble.
In essence, both parties' China policies originate from the same goal: expanding US national interests. They only differ in the priorities they set. At the start of new presidencies, relations between the two countries are often troubled. Eventually, though, the US' policies toward China get back on track. Evidence of that tendency can be seen in the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Although both presidents took tough stances toward China while trying to win votes, they gradually returned to rational policies once they were in office.
Clinton at first linked China's most-favored-nation status to human rights, only to announce a year later that the two matters would not be connected. Beyond that, Clinton vigorously lobbied Congress to pass a bill granting China permanent normal trade relations.
Not long after the next president, George W. Bush, took office, a US aircraft collided with a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea, bringing relations between the countries to another low point. Yet, even before the defining moment of his presidency, the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Bush was trying to improve US relations with China. The quick warming of those ties marks one of his few achievements in foreign policy.
As for the current US presidential election, the Chinese are prudently withholding judgment on which candidate is most "friendly" toward China. There are three reasons for this: First, the Chinese now know far more than they used to about presidential elections and the American political system in general.
Second, after 30 years of reform and opening-up, China has become more powerful and has raised its status in the world. The Chinese people are gaining more self-confidence.
Third, as relations between China and the US take on greater complexity, it has become difficult to define the other side as being simply either a friend or a foe. The two countries compete in many ways and yet must work with each other to overcome global difficulties.
By playing the "China card", Romney, of course, can win the favor of far-right anti-communist conservatives. Yet, his arguments, if inspected closely, will not be found to hold water. The two largest economies in the world are each other's second largest trading partners. And despite their frequent disputes over trade, the US has seen its exports to China increase at a faster rate than those to any other market in the past several years.
The US invests heavily in China, and Chinese investments into the US are also on the increase . In US business circles, advocate of free trades tend to have close ties to the Republican Party. Whether they will tolerate a hard-line policy toward China, such as Romney says he favors, is rather doubtful. In the end, playing the "China card" may not bring Romney many votes. After all, the chief issues in the current US presidential contest are the economy and employment.
No matter who is elected, he will find himself responsible for properly handling the US' relations with China. To accommodate specific groups and win more votes, a candidate may need to pretend to be tough in moments that can determine the fate of his campaign. But if he continues to ignore the common interests of China and the US after being elected, he will only succeed in shooting himself in the foot.
The author is a research scholar in US diplomacy with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
(China Daily 08/28/2012 page8)