The Presidential Politics of US China Policy


The Rebalance author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. rebalance to Asia.  This conversation with Dr. Julian Chang – Dean of the AITIA Institute, IMC/Octave, formerly served as associate dean of the Schwarzman Scholars Program at Tsinghua University, executive director of Asia Programs at the Harvard Kennedy School, Founding President of the Chinese Globalization Association, and deputy director of Stanford University’s Asia Pacific Research Center (A/PARC) – is the 58th in “The Rebalance Insight Series.”

Compare and contrast U.S. China policy under Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump presidencies.

At this point in the election cycle, I am tempted to say that Trump is not taking the presidency seriously, so why should anybody take him seriously? But the sentiments he has been expressing about China and globalization have obviously struck a chord with a significant segment of the U.S. population and it is those concerns that I would like to address.

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The irrational blame heaped on globalization has been a politically expedient red herring for the GOP nominee in addressing a variety of troubling issues at a superficial level. Trump has mostly engaged China on the business level and that is reflected in his tweets. For example, in 2015, he boasted, “When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say, China in a trade deal? They kill us. I beat China all the time. All the time.” His idea that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing noncompetitive” indicates both his skepticism on climate change and his inclination to see conspiracies.

Hillary Clinton’s time in the White House and at various levels of government obviously puts her in a different situation as far as attitudes toward globalization.  Her speech in Beijing in 1995 that equated women’s rights with human rights was a signal moment in both the empowerment of women globally and Clinton’s own stature as an international figure. Her tenure as secretary of state was not all smooth and to many in China her calls for human rights, for example, reflected a deep-seated bias against China. Fundamentally, Clinton operates on the world stage, yet has had to address a diverse set of anxieties about the uneven effects of globalization for domestic constituents.

The question for U.S. China policy under a new administration in the fall will be whether the U.S. remains committed to a global trading system or is drawn in to a protectionist mindset, remains internationalist or becomes isolationist. U.S. China policy has always been torn by the need for strategic consistency and the pull of domestic political concerns, but in our new era of increasingly complex global challenges, the policy choices have longer-term impact. We cannot afford to ignore opportunities to co-create with China new ways of stewarding our common world.

What are the consequences of China-bashing in U.S. presidential campaign rhetoric?

For many election cycles, criticisms of China have led to domestic misconceptions about the state of the bilateral relationship, or the realities of China’s development, and have also created a correspondingly antagonistic response in China. The rhetorical focus on the micro-level – what is the impact on you, your family, your company, of China’s policy choices – and an appeal to baser instincts of fear and anxiety, have produced a “micro-thinking” trap that makes the cognitive leap to macro strategic issues that much harder. In 2016 Trump has been focused on the micro issues, for example, “I have great respect for China. I have many Chinese friends. They live in my buildings all over the place, ” or the comment about winning on trade.  This may be why Chinese reactions to Clinton are less friendly; she actually has thought about the strategic ramifications of China’s rise and global expectations of its place in the world. Clinton’s comments about human rights and the 2008 election are remembered more than her support of Obama’s “pivot to Asia.”

Encouragingly, China’s America-watchers and political leaders have over the years developed a thicker skin in relation to much of the rhetoric in the various campaigns, federal and state/local. Less encouragingly, attempts to present nuanced views on the campaign trail do not have “legs” due to the cognitive leap referenced above. China is a convenient stand-in for many of the domestically-focused anxieties that Americans suffer and that American politicians use in their campaign tactics. Whoever occupies the White House after November should understand that America’s relationship with China is a mix of competition and cooperation, of different views of the world and there will be no simple answer to the challenges that relationship presents. Thus, the simplistic portrayals of China during the election campaigns make it that much harder to reach the nuanced policy responses that will need to be explained and accepted by the Congress and the American people.

Evaluate Beijing’s perception management of China’s international image in the wake of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling in the South China Sea dispute.

Beijing’s foreign policy management always has to factor in several audiences. There is the all-important domestic audience; there are the Chinese Communist Party factions that President Xi is attempting to corral. There are the foreign audiences, which themselves are fragmented.

Beijing’s public response to the Tribunal’s ruling places domestic audiences at the top of the priority list.  By ignoring the ruling, China has thumbed its nose at the current international regime and shown that it is not afraid of going it alone in world politics. By ignoring the ruling and continuing its “island-building,” China has clearly signaled that considerations other than transparency are more important. By ignoring the ruling and shifting its propaganda spotlight to upcoming military exercises in North Asia, China is re-directing attention, primarily domestic, to dependable old foes.

By portraying the tribunal as illegitimate and the result of a political conspiracy led by the United States, Beijing is painting itself into a rhetorical corner that will be hard to climb out of.

What four key challenges in U.S. China policy face the next U.S. administration?

Building the trust and mutual respect that will be required to address the common challenges that humanity is facing.

Creating a stable international environment for China to manage its myriad domestic problems.

Managing the dynamics of a rising power that is displaying impatience with the current world system.

Creating realistic expectations about the limits and possibilities of the complex partnership with China.

How should the next U.S. president communicate the strategic relevance of U.S.-China relations to the American public and allies?

Ironically, China and the United States are each other’s best friends. The future of the 21st century will be written by the cooperation, or lack thereof, between the U.S. and China.

The next U.S. president should:

  1. Signal to China that continued FDI and capital investment is welcome in the U.S.
  2. Solidify the U.S. commitment to Europe and NATO first, and then take the opportunity of the 19th Party Congress in 2017 to follow up with constructive outreach to Xi and his new Politburo.
  3. Work to jointly ratify the 2015 Paris Agreement with China.
  4. Watch a Chinese movie.
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