Features | Politics | East Asia

Don’t Worry About the China Bashing

U.S. politicians have a long tradition of attacking China ahead of elections. It isn’t pretty, but it shouldn’t do much long term harm.

By Sheng Ding for

In his much-hyped remarks on trade earlier this month, U.S. President Barack Obama highlighted his administration’s efforts at targeting China’s allegedly unfair trade practices.

“Since I took office, we’ve brought trade cases against China at nearly twice the rate as the last administration, and these actions are making a difference,” Obama said at the White House on March 13 during a speech on free trade. “For example, we halted an unfair surge in Chinese tires, which has helped put over 1,000 American workers back on the job.”

The speech followed the signing of a much-publicized executive order on the establishment of an interagency trade enforcement center.  According to the order, the center will advance U.S. foreign policy and protect the national and economic security of the United States through strengthened and coordinated enforcement of U.S. trade rights under international trade agreements. 

And the U.S. hasn’t been alone in targeting China. The United States, Japan and European Union recently lodged a joint complaint with the World Trade Organization against China over its export restrictions on strategically important rare earth metals. 

All this suggests that the U.S. administration is determined to step up its campaign theme of protecting U.S. interests and pressing other nations to play by the rules. “Our competitors should be on notice,” Obama said. “You will not get away with skirting the rules.”

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But Obama’s increasingly vocal criticism of China raises some interesting questions as the campaign intensifies ahead of this November’s presidential election, including the question: why now? The Chinese government’s trade and currency policies have come up regularly in recent years. Indeed, since the end of the Cold War, trade-related issues such as the debates over most-favored nation status, intellectual property rights and China’s currency valuation have been behind recurring sources of tension in the U.S.-China relationship. 

Previously, though, the U.S. government was able to adopt low-profile approaches to any problems, working quietly with the Chinese government to solve disputes.  Policymakers in the U.S. government understand that when dealing with countries such as China, intense media coverage and public attention generally do little to help resolve problems.  Which begs the question as to why Obama has decided to openly pick a fight with China on a series of trade issues – does he see a political opportunity in doing so? 

The most likely reason Obama has upped the rhetorical ante is that Sino-U.S. relations have already become a regular topic of discussion among the Republican presidential hopefuls. All of the Republican candidates have been vying with each other to sound tough on China.  And the fact is that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is not only the frontrunner in the Republican primary race – he has also taken an early lead in China bashing. On numerous occasions on the campaign trail, Romney has talked tough on China, accusing it of “stealing” American jobs and intellectual property. 

In his widely-read op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, Romney denounced China’s political system. “A nation that represses its own people cannot ultimately be a trusted partner in an international system based on economic and political freedom,” he wrote. “While it is obvious that any lasting democratic reform in China cannot be imposed from the outside, it is equally obvious that the Chinese people currently do not yet enjoy the requisite civil and political rights to turn internal dissent into effective reform.” Romney has also repeatedly vowed, if elected, to sign an executive order identifying China as a currency manipulator on his first day in office. Indeed, with the U.S. economy still sluggish, China bashing has become one of the focuses of Romney’s presidential campaign. 

Challenged by his Republican opponents over the China issue, Obama has responded swiftly, toughening his rhetoric over China’s trade and currency practices. And he has been joined by other senior officials in his administration. On March 1, for example, Vice President Joe Biden visited the battleground state of Iowa, telling voters that China is too authoritarian to ultimately beat the United States. Such remarks have underscored an important reality for 2012 – the closer the presidential election draws, the more heated the rhetoric is likely to become.

This raises the related question of how politically successful such an approach is likely to prove.

Certainly, there’s widespread concern in the West over the rise of China. But it seems strongest in the United States, a point underscored by polls suggesting that more than half of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of China

It’s true many Americans have mixed feelings about China’s rapid economic development. And while they may admire China’s economic achievements, many also worry about the consequences of economic competition from China.  Such views aren’t surprising – the United States has been struggling for the past few years with a deep economic slump. Many Americans therefore feel frustrated and even angry. Sadly, though, from congressional races to gubernatorial polls to the presidential election, candidates for office have been only too willing to exploit these understandable concerns. American political campaigns, then, have proven to be like a game of poker – bashing China isn’t always a winning hand, but it’s a safe one for all involved.

Still, safe though the attacks on China might feel, they are also unlikely to have much impact on American voters.  American voters as a whole are generally seen as having little interest in foreign policy issues, whether because of a lack of knowledge on foreign policy issues or a feeling that foreign policy has no particular relevance to their lives. Most American voters focus on domestic issues – jobs, taxes and gas prices, as well as social issues like gun violence, gay marriage and abortion.

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The fact is that although China is the United States’ most important bilateral relationship, American voters won’t be casting their votes on the basis of a candidate’s China policies. And anyway, the U.S. and Chinese economies are so integrated that U.S. policymakers can’t simply cut their constituencies off from China.

So, does all this China bashing really matter – and does it risk inflaming already tense ties?

There’s a long tradition, especially since the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet foe, of American presidential candidates attacking China. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all attacked their predecessor’s China policies. Some went further than rhetoric, taking key policy decisions to underscore their “toughness.” For example, in September 1992, President George H.W. Bush approved the sale of 150 F-16 jet fighters to Taiwan, a move viewed by the Chinese government as “the most hideous U.S. arms sale to Taiwan since 1979.” In March 1996, President Bill Clinton ordered two U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups to the Taiwan Strait in response to China’s provocative military exercises in the lead-up to Taiwan’s first democratic election. The move helped underscore Clinton’s readiness to stand up to China in support of a fledgling democracy.

But election year posturing – and the ups and downs of U.S.-China relations more generally – shouldn’t overshadow the fact that successive U.S. and Chinese governments have made ongoing efforts to institutionalize bilateral relations. Yes, the two nations have different political and economic systems, and their peoples sometimes have very different world views. And these differences can lead to prejudice. But the communications revolution of the past two decades also means that there are constantly expanding opportunities for Americans and Chinese to interact on many different levels, which should eventually encourage greater understanding.

The reality is that much of the heated political rhetoric over China will die down once the presidential election is over. Despite the claims by some candidates to the contrary, we can safely assume that come January, whoever comes out on top in November will deal with China in a pragmatic and constructive manner.

Sheng Ding is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Dragon’s Hidden Wings: How China Rises with Its Soft Power. His articles have appeared in Pacific Affairs, the Journal of Contemporary China, Nationalism and Ethnic Politics and the Journal of Asian and African Studies.