China is the weapon of choice in U.S. political campaign arsenals. Candidates resort to China-bashing as a default foil of rhetorical gamesmanship. Some are manifest posturing – Bill Clinton accusing President George W. Bush of “coddling dictators in Beijing” and Mitt Romney declaring China as “currency manipulator”; others border on racism, recall the 2012 Superbowl ad of Michigan Republican candidate Pete Hoekstra in the U.S. Senate race. As history records, Hoekstra was vilified and lost to Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow.
China’s President Xi Jinping’s upcoming U.S. state visit looms over next week’s second GOP debate at the Ronald Reagan Library. The symbolism is palpable. Expectations are high for GOP candidates to articulate their stance on China at the resting place of the Great Communicator, who heralded the end of the Cold War and demise of the Soviet Union. In President Ronald Reagan’s farewell address, he underscored the importance of content in his communications:
And in all of that time I won a nickname, “The Great Communicator.” But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: it was the content. I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn’t spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation – from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries. They called it the Reagan revolution. Well, I’ll accept that, but for me it always seemed more like the great rediscovery, a rediscovery of our values and our common sense.
GOP candidates have plenty of fodder to fire away at China – the impact of China’s recent stock market rout on global markets, aggressive island-building in the South China Sea, relentless cyberattacks into U.S. government data systems, ongoing human rights infringements, among many other issues.
We offer three measures of messaging for addressing China issues throughout the campaign season:
Cooler heads prevail. Pragmatism will prevail over politicization of China policy. U.S. leadership in Asia and toward China is best exercised with fortitude and principles. As former U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Platt advised in our Rebalance Insight conversation, “The Chinese have become accustomed over the years to China bashing and harsh rhetoric during U.S. presidential campaigns…That said, Beijing will be listening carefully. Candidates who articulate an informed, practical approach to U.S. engagement in Asia, stick up for their principles and their old friends (including Chinese), and espouse peaceful engagement across the region will earn respect in Asia and votes at home.”
Strategically global, tactically local. Skillful candidates will demonstrate strategic thinking with tactical understanding of U.S. leadership in Asia vis-à-vis China. Contenders would be well-served to explain the benefits of bilateral cross-border investments and job creation in the context of intensified global economic competition. A default rhetorical device is to attribute weak U.S. economic performance to Chinese machinations as a zero-sum game. This approach may appeal to local constituencies, but oversimplifies structural challenges in both countries’ economies and an increasingly interdependent global economy. Concurrently, China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea warrants a strategic security approach that has local effectiveness with regional allies. Donald Trump’s China-chiding is a case study in how his brand of hyperbole garners vacuous hilarity. Scott Walker’s serial flip-flopping on multiple issues, including China – calling on President Barack Obama to show backbone and cancel the U.S.-China summit, while embracing Chinese trade opportunities for the state of Wisconsin – erodes the credibility of his candidacy. Having vaulted into next week’s first-tier debate line-up, Carly Fiorina has ratcheted up national security rhetoric to sustain a viable candidacy with calls for a more aggressive U.S. approach toward China. As Ben Carson’s poll position rises, his prosaic warning against overconfidence and ineptitude driving U.S. decline and fueling China’s rise lacks a bipartisan policy plan. Taking a swipe at the Obama administration’s excessive spending, Chris Christie has used the China card to reinforce his straight-talking-tough-guy persona amid sinking polls. Though Marco Rubio has eloquently laid out his pillars of U.S. foreign policy, time will tell if his strident stance on China’s human rights record is political theater or true moral resolve. In fundraising with U.S. expats in China and Hong Kong this week, Jeb Bush’s outreach to the American business community in Asia is expected to “elevate his stature in the region,” while his linkage between “anchor babies” and “Asian people” stoked the ire of Asian American communities at home.
Address the audience(s). Multiple audiences are in play at the debates – the American electorate, campaign supporters, donors, pundits, U.S. allies and their publics – Australia, Canada, India, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, among others – opinion influencers, and rivals. Tailored messaging that resonates will convey presidential grit with a blend of wit and wisdom. While showmanship and gamesmanship will be on full display, winning candidates may opt to channel their inner Ronald Reagan with content and conviction in explaining why respected U.S. leadership in Asia and resolutely strengthening U.S.-China relations go hand-in-hand.