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What Midterms Mean for China

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China Power

What Midterms Mean for China

Will the Republican triumph in the midterms put pressure on Barack Obama to take a tough line with China?

Last month I wrote an entry entitled ‘The Dangers of China Bashing’ focusing on a candidate for the US Senate (an unsuccessful one, thankfully) who claimed to have classified information showing that China had a ‘strategic plan to take over America’.

The claim by Christine O’Donnell was made in 2006, when she was debating other Republicans for the party’s nomination. Although her denial that she was a witch in one of her campaign ads seemed to strike a final nail into the coffin of her chances, she was by no means alone in trying to whip up fear of China to bolster her candidacy.

Indeed, writing late last month in the New Yorker ahead of yesterday’s Congressional midterm elections, Andrew Osnos argued: ‘Red-China-baiting hasn’t reached such rhetorical splendour in US politics since, perhaps, 1882, when Congress passed the first American law to bar a group based on its national origin—The Chinese Exclusion Act—after anti-Chinese riots against the “yellow peril.”’

So now that the results are in and it’s clear that Barack Obama’s party has taken a hammering, it’s worth looking at how the Republican seizure of the House of Representatives is likely to affect US policy toward China.

Britain’s Telegraph suggests that much of the midterm rhetoric was simply election politics aimed squarely at a domestic audience, and that pressure, for example, over the valuation of the renminbi is now likely to ease. Indeed, it quoted one Chinese analyst as saying that despite Republican-backed legislation being passed by Congress a couple of months back to pressure China over the value of its currency, China wouldn’t face ‘any more pressure on the valuation of the renminbi.’

The China Daily suggested much the same with the teaser for its main story today, writing that the ‘takeover creates divided government, but analysts believe result unlikely to change Sino-US ties.’ Oddly, though, the article itself implies something a little different, citing one analyst as arguing that Obama will inevitably now need to pay more attention to Congress’s views on the issue and another arguing that the administration’s China policies ‘will surely be affected’ by the result.

One thing that will surely influence how Congress works with Obama on foreign policy is who takes over as chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. If it is, as expected, Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, it will be interesting to see what line she takes with China on key issues affecting the two countries.

An early clue might be her tough stance over claims that Chinese and Russian firms were ignoring sanctions over Iran’s nuclear programme.

‘It's time to implement our sanctions laws and demonstrate to Russia and China that there are consequences for abetting Tehran and flouting US sanctions,’ she was reported as saying in August.

And her actual voting record? She has voted ‘Yes’ for legislation on deterring foreign arms transfers to China, she co-sponsored a congressional resolution condemning China ‘for its poor human rights record’ and urging it to ‘stop persecution of all religious practitioners and safeguard fundamental human rights’, and she voted ‘No’ to permanent normal trade relations with China back in 2000.

She has also, according to OpenCongress, been a member of the Coalition to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong in China, which will please Chinese officials no end, I’m sure.

So, will a Republican-led House prompt a more assertive US stance with China?

According to Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a fellow in regional strategic and political studies and lead researcher for political and strategic affairs at the ASEAN Studies Centre at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, the answer is probably yes.

‘I think there could be a new push from the Republicans to respond to China—in all aspects in their bilateral relationship—in a less compromising way,’ he told me when I asked him what he made of the result.

Pavin rightly noted the long list of irritants in ties these days that could be highlighted by Republicans. As well as ongoing US concerns over the value of the renminbi and accusations that China is failing to protect the intellectual property of foreign companies operating in China, Pavin pointed to differences between the two countries over sanctions against Iran, Sino-Japanese tensions over the disputed ownership of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands and China’s closeness with the military junta in Burma.

However, Pavin, a former Thai diplomat, also worries that the increased US engagement with South-east Asia in recent months could slip if the Obama administration gets caught up in more domestic policy skirmishes.

Speaking with the Wall Street Journal, Pavin said: ‘The Obama administration will continue reaching out to China and the Islamic world, but the relationship with South-east Asia might suffer if there's a lot of domestic politics to contend with in America.’

I asked Pavin about US engagement in the region generally, as well as how he thought ties with China specifically could be affected by the Republican win.

‘The resurgence of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, which involve China, Taiwan and four members of ASEAN—Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines—have threatened peace and security in the region…All of these contentious issues could be further highlighted by the Republicans,’ he said.

‘This wouldn’t lead to peaceful relations between the two countries.’