Obama and Romney on China

A few weeks ago, Michael Moran of Renaissance Insights and Slate.com had a discussion with the World Affairs Council on the future of American power.

In particular, he stressed the need for the US to come to terms with the geopolitical transition away from a world where it is the sole superpower to one where it is one of a handful of powerful countries such as China, Brazil and India.

Many of the audience questions involved China, from its comparative advantage with lax environmental regulations to American misconceptions of the county. In a recent Gallup poll, Americans were split on whether or not China’s economic rise was good or bad for the country, although there is concern at the trade deficit is a major barrier to stronger ties. China even bought an additional $12.7 billion of US debt in February.

Appropriately, China has also been a centerpiece of the ongoing US Presidential campaign. Mitt Romney in particular has been noted as centering his foreign policy around the world’s second-largest economy. Romney’s campaign website devotes a full section to China, with the following just as an introduction:

China must be discouraged from attempting to intimidate or dominate neighboring states. If the present Chinese regime is permitted to establish itself as the preponderant power in the Western Pacific it could close off large parts of the region to cooperative relations with the United States and the West and dim hope that economic opportunity and democratic freedom will continue to flourish across East Asia. Mitt Romney will implement a strategy that makes the path of regional hegemony for China far more costly than the alternative path of becoming a responsible partner in the international system.

Romney’s main focus on China has been on the topic of economic competition and fairness. With the proposed Reagan Economic Zone, Romney cautions that his “objective is not to build an anti-China coalition” although the following paragraph describes the economic bloc as an attempt to “knit together the entire region, discouraging imbalanced bilateral trade relations between China and its neighbors, limiting China’s ability to coerce other countries.”

In his op-ed piece in The Washington Post, Romney advocates for a forceful push-back and promises to officially declare China a currency manipulator on his first day in office. Due to the enormity of trade between the U.S. and China, this tactic is controversial even among fellow Republicans like John Huntsman, the former Governor of Utah and Ambassador to China.

“When it comes to China, I think it’s wrongheaded when you talk about slapping a tariff on day one. That pushes aside the reality, the complexity of the relationship,” Huntsman said in February.

Hu Xijin, editor of the Chinese newspaper The Global Times, dismissed Romney’s strong words as routine campaign bluster, stating that “over the last 20 years, the China policies of U.S. presidents have always been milder than the threats the same men made on the campaign trail.”

Much like President George W. Bush before him, President Obama has demanded that China step up the pace of changing the way the Chinese government values the yuan. Both presidents stopped short of officially declaring China a currency manipulator. The U.S. Treasury has consistently criticized what it calls a “misalignment” of the yuan’s exchange rate over the last several years.

Both President Obama and Mitt Romney have warned China about acting on its claims to the South China Sea. The US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue initiated under the Obama administration has been praised for allowing regular high-level talks to occur between the Chinese and American governments. President Obama’s “Pacific turn” late last year has formally begun with the posting of a few hundred marines in Darwin, Australia.

Responding to Chinese fears that the small marine base was indicative of a policy of encirclement or containment, Obama replied, “The notion that we fear China is mistaken. The notion that we are looking to exclude China is mistaken. […] We welcome a rising, peaceful China.”

The Republican frontrunner is more blunt on the topic, flatly stating the need to contain China’s rise. Romney’s website declares that “if the present Chinese regime is permitted to establish itself as the preponderant power in the Western Pacific it could close off large parts of the region to cooperative relations with the United States and the West and dim hope that economic opportunity and democratic freedom will continue to flourish across East Asia.”

Reflecting the current administration’s policy, Hillary Clinton on her first trip as Secretary of State in 2009 stated “Some believe that China on the rise is, by definition, an adversary. To the contrary, we believe that the United States and China can benefit from and contribute to each other’s successes. It is in our interests to work harder to build on areas of common concern and shared opportunities.”

Mitt Romney has also criticized the President’s mixed record on speaking up on human rights issues with China. His campaign promises to strongly support groups within China promoting democratic reform, anti-corruption efforts, religious freedom, and women’s and minority rights. Calling China a “prosperous tyranny,” Romney believes that not speaking out loudly and often on human rights abuses in China will only embolden and encourage the Chinese leadership.

In a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Romney even declared that “the dawn of a Chinese century—and the end of an American one—is not inevitable. America possesses inherent strengths that grant us a competitive advantage over China and the rest of the world. We must, however, restore those strengths.”

Michael Moran spoke to the World Affairs Council on the United States’ need to focus on its competitive advantages to maintain American prominence in the areas it does best. That being said, Moran also stated that the inability to acknowledge the already shifting geopolitical situation, such as insisting on another American century, is problematic. In any case, all the candidates agree that the U.S.’s relationship with China is one of the most, if not the most, important to the future of the country.

This is the second in the World Affairs Council’s series on the foreign policy issues in the 2012 US Presidential campaign. The first article can be found here. For those interested in additional information, the Council on Foreign Relations has a fantastic Issue Tracker that goes into more depth on a wide variety of subjects, including a page devoted to the candidates’ policies towards China.


By Matt Landers, Communications Intern.