There is a popular view that Republican presidents have always done much better in managing the realpolitik of China policy than their Democratic Party peers. As noted in a Foreign Policy article in 2013 by Daniel Drezner, exit polls in presidential voting between 1976 and 2012 have shown consistently higher trust by voters in Republican candidates for president for the conduct of foreign policy than in Democratic candidates.
Can we expect a better-performing China policy from the United States (whatever that might mean) if a Republican takes office in the White House in January 2017, almost mid-way through the 10-year, unelected term of China’s Xi Jinping?
Whatever one’s political inclinations, it may be useful — one year out from the election — to contemplate the long term trend of presidential China policy and how partisan politics may re-shape that if a Republican wins 2016.
One issue about the long term trend worthy of some contemplation now is the relationship between elite opinion (business and security specialists) in the Republican Party and party factions tied to special ideological interests or biased understandings of China. My assessment would be that until now, in Republican administrations going back to Nixon, the elites and their pragmatism, supported by a rather clear-eyed intelligence community, have always dominated in China policy. The grassroots have had little influence on this area of policy. This has been deeply reassuring to those of us who live in the Pacific.
At the same time, I would also caution that perhaps under George W. Bush, the dominance of the pragmatists was much less secure. His administration did a workmanlike job in managing some very sticky China crises (such as the P3C crew detention by China in 2001) as well as shifting power relativities (China rising). Most impressive was Bush’s management of the Taiwan situation under its pro-independence President Chen Shui-bian.
So how was this possible when the strategic policy of the Bush presidency was marked by the strong influence of neo-conservatives, whose main reason for living seemed to have been the belief that China was little better than the devil incarnate? They seemed to hope for a reversal of U.S. China policy under Bill Clinton so that Washington would more explicitly recognize the Communist government in Beijing as fundamentally antagonistic to U.S. interests, and not as a “partner” of some kind.
It is an irony of history that members of this faction were to be denied their greatest wish upon coming to office. Two things saved the Bush administration (and the world) from the unhappy fate (a confrontation with China) that the neo-cons seemed to be wishing up on us (though they would of course deny this was their intention).
The first factor was the series of terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. The neo-cons not only had to turn their gaze away from China, but they also had to come to terms with the terrorist threat. They failed this challenge badly, as evidenced by the fiasco and doctored intelligence associated with their presumption of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and by their preferred solution (invasion and occupation) for addressing these threats. In focusing on an exaggerated China threat before September 2001, the neo-cons did their country a great disservice by looking to defend the country “where the light was best,” and not where the threat was most serious.
The second factor may have been just as powerful and it was pure elite politics, governed thankfully by the Republican legacy of pragmatism in China policy. This came in the person, no less, of the president, George W. Bush, who is definitely not one of my heroes (see again: Iraq WMDs) but who showed a remarkable capability to resist and manage the neo-con anti-China agitators in his administration.
In interviews I conducted in 2003-04, I was reliably informed that Bush tolerated the anti-China rants of his senior neo-con advisors, but when anything approaching confrontation with China was mooted, he would personally intervene with a simple oral directive: “I want good relations with China.”
Whatever the realities of the inner sanctum of the Bush presidency, we can see that the outcomes on China policy followed this pathway. Pragmatism ruled. I understood that to be in large part the direct result of the influence of Bush’s father, former president George Herbert Walker Bush, and his entourage of deeply skilled and deeply knowledgeable advisors on China policy.
Looking from here to a Republican presidency in 2017, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the negative pressure we saw on U.S. China policy from the neo-cons under George W. Bush will be multiplied in spades by negative pressures from a far more fragmented, deeply ideological, and less pragmatic party. This is my reading of the Republican Congress members’ performance on China policy and foreign policy in general under Obama and of the attitudes of the Republican Party’s support base. I am taking as one reference point for my assumptions about the extremist elements in the support base the strong showings of Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz in opinion polls on likely support for them in a presidential election.
In this environment, as much I am opposed to dynasty politics in democratic societies, whether it be Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Justin Trudeau, or Marine Le Pen, I am beginning to suspect that the only Republican candidate who can navigate the foreign policy nightmare the United States and the world now face (thanks to Islamic State, Russia, and the mess in Israel) is Jeb Bush. And he will do it with a human and compassionate face that his aforementioned competitors appear to lack.
Fragmentation of the popular power base of a Republican president and the deepening influence of extremist and unsustainable tendencies among candidates and elite advisers (neo-cons on steroids) could be a threat to peace with China. It could also be threat to the future prosperity and global leadership of the United States.
The truth is we don’t know. We need more clarity.