In one U.S. Presidential election after another, the media hype the specter of China as an issue of real policy import. It has been two decades, however, since China has been anything more than a blip on a Presidential debate television screen; and frankly, that has been a good thing. Campaigns rarely elevate thinking on substantive issues. This time around, however, China is becoming a genuine political football, tossed around without any clear aim but hard enough to cause some real damage.
Out on the campaign trail, China rhetoric lives mostly in the realm of political insult. Governor Romney’s campaign argues “President Obama promised to take China ‘to the mat’ but instead he has allowed China to treat the United States like a doormat.” Should he become president, Governor Romney has stated that “I will finally take China to the carpet and say, ‘Look you guys, I’m gonna label you a currency manipulator and apply tariffs unless you stop those practices.” For his part, President Obama has railed against Governor Romney’s private equity experience with China: “I understand my opponent has been running around Ohio claiming he’s going to roll up his sleeves, and take the fight to China…. Ohio, you can’t stand up to China when all you’ve done is send them our jobs.” In reference to China’s trade subsidies, President Obama has asserted that “It’s not right, it’s against the rules and we will not let it stand.”
Such throwaway campaign lines are part and parcel of U.S. presidential politicking, but China deserves to be treated seriously in the Presidential race for all the reasons everyone already knows, including: it manipulates its currency; its companies routinely violate intellectual property rights and engage in cyber-espionage; its regional security rhetoric and military activity have become much more assertive in the past few years; and its political practices—both at home and abroad—challenge U.S. notions of good governance and often undermine U.S. efforts to address crises in global hot spots. While China’s policies may not be that different or even as detrimental as those of many other countries, the size of its population, economy, and military greatly amplify its impact.
Thoughtful discourse should not be difficult. President Obama has a record on China that he can defend and Governor Romney can challenge. There are also emerging issues that have yet to be tackled and desperately need to be addressed. Here are my suggestions for four China-related issues the candidates might debate:
1) Is the U.S. pivot toward Asia the right strategy? This is one of President Obama’s hallmark initiatives, and Governor Romney asserts it has been oversold and under-resourced.
2) Assuming China is not going to wake up tomorrow and decide it is important to play by all the rules of international finance and trade, what should the United States do? President Obama has focused much of his energy on the WTO and multilateral engagement and enforcement mechanisms; in contrast, Governor Romney has advanced a set of unilateral and punitive actions.
3) How will the United States manage the wave of Chinese investment activity that may soon be washing up on its shores? What is the potential upside, as well as downside risk? I haven’t heard anything from either candidate on this front.
4) Are we making China into an enemy we don’t need and they don’t want to be, and if so, how do we avoid this trap?
If the candidates themselves can’t get China right, the Chinese media are apparently ready to step in to help. The Global Times, for one, has offered up its services: “As U.S. elections often involve China-bashing, China cannot remain out of the affair. China should play a role in the elections and correct the attitude of both candidates and the American public toward China.” My guess is that on this particular China policy, both candidates would have the same reaction: Thanks, but no thanks.
Elizabeth C. Economy is C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is an expert on Chinese domestic and foreign policy and U.S.-China relations and author of the award-winning book, 'The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future.' She blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared.