China’s impact on the U.S. economy and its rising global power gives China a significant role in the Republican primaries. Mitt Romney, the embattled frontrunner for the nomination, articulates a China policy focused primarily on economic issues to attack President Barack Obama’s handling of the American economy. On the few occasions that he discusses China from a security standpoint, Romney emphasizes the need for U.S. military predominance to deal with a potentially threatening China with opaque intentions.
In general, however, Romney’s China policy is narrowly expressed, leaving many issues untouched and others only indirectly addressed. Instead, Romney talks about China in a limited, consistent, and measured manner that fits within a larger campaign narrative focused on domestic economic issues.
Most notably, Romney’s statements about “standing up to China” and labeling China a currency manipulator drew attention from media pundits and his Republican opponents alike. His critics accuse him of pandering to domestic workers, warning that Romney’s assertive approach might spark a trade war.
Conventional wisdom eschews taking politicians at their word with tough campaign rhetoric on China, however, and some members of the business community suggest that if elected, Romney would eventually moderate his stance to deal with the complexity of U.S. policy on China.
The approach of Romney’s Republican contenders to China varies along the dual lines of policy and politics. Compared to the other candidates, Romney has been relatively successful in providing substantive policy stances and fitting China coherently within his overall campaign narrative. Understanding the other candidates’ approaches provides important contrasts to Romney’s policies and approach.
Newt Gingrich, Romney’s main rival in the primaries, hasn’t articulated a coherent policy, choosing instead to employ fear-mongering rhetoric about a threatening China. Indeed, Gingrich’s policy statements fail to exhibit a detailed understanding of China, despite his profession that he has “been studying China since the 1960s.”
Gingrich’s statements are inconsistent, on the one hand claiming that China overtaking the United States economically is one of three major “catastrophes” facing the United States, but on the other, saying, “I don’t worry about China. I worry about us.” Most of his responses to questions about China actually sidestep the topic, instead addressing problems in the U.S. domestic economy.
His policy prescriptions draw on a bland formulation calling for more innovation, education, and fiscal conservatism, an uncontroversial consensus that’s widely accepted within the Republican Party. And in contrast to Romney, China doesn’t play a prominent role in Gingrich’s published foreign policy statements.
Rick Santorum’s statements about China, similar to Gingrich’s, rely on the political value of painting China as a threat and lack concrete policy prescriptions. Santorum, however, is even more hawkish and outspoken, railing against China’s “godless socialism,” and painting China as a thief of U.S. manufacturing jobs and as a scapegoat for problems affecting the American middle class.
Ron Paul, in contrast, avoids blaming China, instead insisting that “we can’t go looking for scapegoats, we can’t blame China.” Paul’s views on China fall within his larger, unique foreign policy vision of a vastly decreased U.S. military role worldwide but a continued emphasis on free trade and open markets. Paul rejects protectionist measures as a way to respond to China’s actions, emphasizing engagement, negotiation, and persuasion rather than a strong military presence to shape China’s choices.
But back to Romney. His public pronouncements predominantly target the ways that Chinese practices are problematic for the U.S. economy. In policy terms, Romney strongly advocates a rules-based international system, often repeating that China is “cheating” and needs to “follow the rules” with respect to intellectual property, currency manipulation, cyber warfare, and predatory pricing, all of which he argues are hurting the United States economically. Romney’s economic plan also advocates a robust U.S. trade policy based on open markets, expanded trade agreements, and a stronger focus on trade policy as an instrument of statecraft.
Much attention has been given to Romney’s statement that on his first day in office he would label China a currency manipulator, and there has been some debate over whether this would actually trigger a trade war. Legally, such action merely obligates the treasury secretary to initiate negotiations with the Chinese; some argue it has no practical value other than to shame China.
Currency issues have become less central in U.S.-China relations over the past two years, in part due to the steady real appreciation of Beijing’s currency, coupled with Washington’s own quantitative easing policies. But Romney’s prescriptions for a tough trade policy to address other systemic economic frictions are at once both troubling and encouraging: troubling for the real possibility that punitive action against China would evoke some level of punitive response, and encouraging because he’s the only remaining candidate whose proposals evince deeper thinking about how to influence China and address long-standing U.S. frustrations.
Romney’s assessment, both on trade issues and on security, is that China’s desire for stability and access to U.S. and global markets form a key bargaining chip. This indicates that China can be influenced and robust U.S. policy can affect change.
Despite Romney’s clarity and consistency on economic and trade matters related to China, his remarks haven’t delved into the obvious security challenges associated with such a complex bilateral relationship. This narrow focus on economic issues rather than on geopolitical trends is likely based on an assessment that with respect to China, Obama is weakest on trade, and that, even though Obama promised in 2008 to be tough on China, he has avoided confronting Beijing directly in a major way – including refusing to label China a currency manipulator.
Romney can use such behavior to point out supposed shortcomings in Obama’s actual policies. It also likely reflects a judgment, based in part on opinion polling, that the U.S. public is primarily concerned about China as an economic, rather than a military threat. It’s easy to criticize China because there’s no clear and unified group within the United States that counters such criticism. And U.S. businesses, traditionally a group in favor of peaceful, stable ties with China, are somewhat divided on the issue as it has become harder to do business in China over the last few years.
Still, despite his almost exclusionary focus on China’s economic impact, Romney’s general foreign policy ideas provide some insight into how he might approach U.S.-China security relations. Romney’s foreign policy speech at the Citadel in South Carolina in October, along with other general statements on national security, emphasized a vision of continued U.S. predominance and advocated an “American Century” in contrast to prognostications of a coming “Chinese Century.” Romney draws the distinction of these two competing futures in terms of freedom and values that emanate from the nature of a regime.
Fundamental to this vision is a perception of China as a possible threat, a belief that China can be shaped and influenced by U.S. action, and a prescription that the best way to steer China away from a threatening course is through maintaining U.S. military predominance.
Romney’s Citadel speech painted China’s future as yet to be determined – a choice between “a new era of freedom and prosperity,” and a “darker path” including “building a global alliance of authoritarian states.” The implication appears to be that China might become an ideological threat to the United States. Romney’s solution comes back to his campaign narrative: focus on U.S. economic competitiveness and maintain military superiority.
Romney repeatedly advocates high defense spending to preserve predominant U.S. military strength around the world. Articulated from a perspective of American exceptionalism, this advocacy draws on Reagan’s formulation of “peace through strength,” a notion prevalent in the U.S. government, especially within the Defense Department.
At the same time, Romney has stated a desire to influence China to be a “responsible partner in the international system,” a system in which Romney hopes to “create a predictable economic and security environment” and minimize instability. China’s desire for stability and its economic interdependence with the United States is again one of Romney’s chief arguments for why China won’t engage in a trade war over punitive measures against alleged Chinese cheating.
Overall, Romney’s choice of how to frame his China policy reflects his decision to focus on how China affects U.S. voters and how to best attack Obama regarding China. While Romney is wise not to overemphasize China, Obama’s Asia policy has been considered pragmatic and successful by most observers.
If Romney wins the nomination, discussion about the future of America will likely include a debate about how China’s rise will impact the United States. He will need to articulate a clearer conception of how to balance partnership with China, U.S. military predominance, and an emphasis on values and freedom.
Michael Swaine is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Oliver Palmer is a junior fellow in the Asia Program at CEIP. This is an edited version of an article that was originally published by the organization that appeared here.