China Power

“Silly Season” on Both Sides of the Pacific

In Beijing and Washington, election politics are creating lots of tough talk.

Election season in the United States is often called the “silly season” as a result of all the name-calling and heightened nationalistic rhetoric that it tends to produce.  China policy, while never a central focus of the campaign season, nonetheless is always raised, and this year is no exception. Both the Obama and the Romney campaigns have condemned Beijing for its weak adherence to global trade norms and its negative impact on the American economy, with Romney supporters threatening serious action if their guy is elected.

I have generally thought of this silly season as an almost uniquely American phenomenon, or at least one limited to democracies. Now, however, it seems China is enjoying its own silly season as it prepares for its new leadership to assume office next spring. Of course, Zhongnanhai campaigning is rather different than the White House version. Most obviously, the elections are missing.  Still, there is jockeying for power and, as Bo Xilai’s downfall indicates, no leader is a sure bet until his or her name is announced at the Party Congress. In addition, rather than monopolizing as much airspace as possible, China’s political contenders are better served by not opening their mouths. After all, this is a collective leadership, and it is better to be less well-known than too well-known. Stand too tall and your head may get lopped off.

Whatever the differences in how the U.S. and Chinese leaders get hold of the brass ring, Chinese scholars, analysts, and media commentators seem to be using their political transition time to limit their leaders’ maneuverability in foreign policy by developing an overwhelmingly hawkish narrative concerning the U.S. approach to China:

  • In his August 29th commentary “It is unwise for U.S. to contain China,” Xinhua writer Wu Liming writes: the “core of the U.S. strategy is to defend its dominance and hegemony in the Asia Pacific region”; Washington has “resorted to diplomatic, economic and strategic means … to create disturbances in the Asia-Pacific region”; and “the U.S. has tried to alienate China from countries around the South China Sea.”
  • In a more nuanced but equally misguided Global Times interview, professor Wang Yizhou asserts that U.S. scholars are well-aware of the legitimacy of Chinese claims to the South China Sea, but are deliberately withholding information because it does not advance the U.S. goal of “contain[ing] China and maintain[ing] its leading role in the world.”
  • Well-known foreign policy analyst Yuan Peng adopts a more cautious tone but nonetheless assigns only self-serving and malevolent  impulses to U.S. foreign policy in Asia: “By relocating its military presence from Okinawa to the Guam Island and extending the command of joint U.S.-South Korean military operations to 2015, the United States is overtly targeting China and covertly trying to keep control of its allies ….” However, Yuan also argues that if China is patient, the United States will fail: “The history of the past 50 years has proved that the United States can never manage to reconcile the fundamental contradiction between its attempt to control its allies and the endeavor of the latter to get free.”

I tend to ignore all of the noise—in China and the United States—because it is just that—noise. During times of elections and transition, there is bound to be more than the usual political drama as candidates and commentators try to off-load complex domestic problems on convenient foreign scapegoats.  Both sides would do well to bear in mind the cautionary note concerning heightened U.S. election rhetoric from Chinese Academy of Social Sciences scholar Yuan Zheng: “No matter who is elected, he will find himself responsible for properly handling the U.S.’ relations with China. To accommodate specific groups and win more votes, a candidate may need to pretend to be tough in moments that can determine the fate of his campaign. But if he continues to ignore the common interests of China and the U.S. after being elected, he will only succeed in shooting himself in the foot.” Wise words, not only for U.S. politicians and commentators, but also for their Chinese brethren.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

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.