During the recent visit of Chinese heir apparent Xi Jinping to the United States, Mitt Romney lambasted the Obama administration for approaching Beijing as a “near supplicant” and permitting “the dawn of a Chinese century” to continue unopposed. The way forward: tougher economic penalties to reverse Washington’s “trade surrender,” and an invigorated military presence in the Pacific to force China to abandon its dreams of regional hegemony.
The conventional reading of Romney on China suggests that such chest-thumping rhetoric will fade with the election, giving way to the mainstream consensus that pairs economic and diplomatic engagement with strategic hedging.
Though this is at least partially true, leaving the next administration’s China policy to the learning curve is still risky. Romney’s tough talk on China conceals some profoundly deterministic – and pessimistic assumptions – about the future of U.S.-China relations that could accelerate existing momentum for future confrontations.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Without a critical appraisal of U.S. interests and capabilities, Romney could do both too much and too little to manage the frictions generated by an increasingly assertive China in Asia. Too much in that an overly aggressive and militarized response against China could set the two great powers on a collision course, and too little in that poorly-conceived interventions in other regions could force the United States to divert its attention and resources away from Asia, sending disturbing messages to China and U.S. allies alike.
It would be tempting to dismiss Romney’s broadsides against the Obama administration’s China policy as red meat for the electorate. But the obligatory notes about currency manipulation mask a coherent, if troubling narrative of the future U.S.-China relationship, most likely authored by neoconservative advisors on the Romney team.
When Romney warns that “a China that is a prosperous tyranny will increasingly pose problems for us, for its neighbors, and for the entire world,” he appears to be channeling the neoconservative school of thought that sees China’s Leninist, one-party regime as an insurmountable obstacle to strategic trust that will inevitably drive the two powers to clash. Robert Kagan and Aaron Friedberg, prominent members of his foreign policy team, have argued that an authoritarian political system distorts China’s strategic calculus, so that it sees the United States and its democratic allies as co-conspirators in an effort to throttle the nation’s growth. Given such deep-rooted beliefs, according to this view, China will have little choice but to overthrow the U.S.-led alliance system in Asia, and reconstitute a sphere of influence on its maritime periphery.
As for the appropriate response to this alleged provocation, Romney largely echoes his advisors. Only by pouring more resources into a military buildup can the United States steer China away from “the path to regional hegemony” and toward the course of a responsible stakeholder. Expectations of a “contest for supremacy” in the Pacific may have driven Romney to promise to expand the U.S. navy by fifteen ships per year, compared with the current nine.
Not all of Romney’s advisors offer such dire predictions about the future of U.S.-China relations, though the images and assumptions of neoconservatives have featured most prominently in his statements to date. Even the most hawkish of Romney’s advisors have no desire to revisit the horrors of Iraq in the Pacific. Rather, they believe that only a highly militarized response can compel a rising China to yield to the reality of U.S. predominance in the region. The aim is to extend the relatively peaceful status quo – with its broadly favorable terms for the United States, such as the ability to conduct unfettered surveillance along China’s eastern seaboard – into perpetuity.