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What We Need to Hear From the Candidates on China

by Elizabeth C. Economy
October 19, 2012

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney listens to U.S. President Barack Obama during the second U.S. presidential campaign debate in Hempstead, New York, on October 16, 2012. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney listens to U.S. President Barack Obama during the second U.S. presidential campaign debate in Hempstead, New York, on October 16, 2012. (Jim Young / Courtesy Reuters)


A few weeks back I explored the quality of the China debate in the Presidential campaign and found it sadly lacking. The campaigns have targeted China as a critical issue, but not in a way that elevates the discourse. China-bashing television ads and debate over whose pension fund has Chinese companies in its portfolio are not going to help the American people understand who would better manage U.S.-China relations and China’s rise. As a result, I raised a number of potential issues I thought might help answer this question.

Now with the foreign policy debate just a few days away, I see that the moderator Bob Schieffer has selected “The rise of China and tomorrow’s world” as one of the five central topics for the debate. The somewhat awkward-sounding but bold title has reinforced my sense that the candidates need to be pushed out of their comfort zones to address the more strategic challenges that China is likely to present.

Here are four questions I think might help force a bigger picture debate:

  • China has a seat on the UN Security Council, the world’s second largest economy, and one of the world’s largest standing armies. Yet it remains reluctant to assume a leading role in addressing global challenges. How can the next U.S. President ensure that China works with the United States and does its fair share to meet the world’s most pressing global problems?
  • China’s economy is widely anticipated to become the largest in the world—surpassing that of the United States—within the next five to ten years. What difference, if any, do you expect that will make in the U.S.-China bilateral relationship and in global economic relations?
  • In the past several months, a number of conflicts have flared up in the Asia Pacific between China and its neighbors. Some have blamed the U.S. pivot for emboldening actors in the region to take provocative actions. Mr. President, is this growing regional tension an outcome you anticipated or did you miscalculate?  What further steps would you take to help decrease tensions? Governor Romney, you have asserted that the pivot was oversold and under-resourced. Please explain what you would do differently as president.
  • China has achieved extraordinary economic success with a one-party authoritarian system that continues to limit many of the basic human rights that we in the United States value and have fought for throughout the world. Does China present a credible alternative development model for other countries? Does this pose an existential threat to U.S. standing abroad?

Frankly, I am glad that unlike the Middle East, China is not reeling from one crisis to another, while the United States struggles to find effective policy tools. China does not provide safe haven for terrorists and it did not trigger the global financial crisis. For the purposes of the presidential debate on foreign policy, that makes China appear a second tier issue.

Still, China may well pose a far more serious strategic challenge to the United States and the global system. Chinese officials have called for the world to move away from the dollar as its reserve currency, challenged U.S. notions of good governance throughout the world, and blocked U.S. initiatives to address crises in Syria and Iran. All of this makes China an issue of paramount importance for the presidential debate. Let’s hope that Mr. Schieffer can push the candidates to take the issue and the American people seriously enough to aim for profound rather than petty.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by George Koo

    Here is a nitty gritty question I would like to ask Governor Romney:

    By calling China currency manipulator on day one, how many jobs and what kinds of jobs do you expect to come back to America?

  • Posted by S. Mahmud Ali

    Now that the foreign policy debate is over, several points appear to be clearer than they have been:

    * President Obama has designated China “an adversary,” something few of his predecessors have done so openly. The fact that he also described it as a partner does not mitigate the import of his statement confirming long-standing Chinese fears of the real intentions behind US policy, especially its recently proclaimed but longer-standing “pivot/rebalancing.”

    * While electioneering pressures have forced President Obama to harden his formal stance towards China, his Administration has, since late 2009, already been quite tough on Beijing. In contrast, Governor Romney has hitherto been vocally critical of China, but at least during this last debate, sounded much more moderate and statesmanlike. At least in rhetorical terms, both candidates appear to have changed their perspective on China. Whether they will now meet at the centre is not clear, but that seems to be one possible outcome of the shift.

    * Both candidates insisted on the axiomatic extension of US primacy into the indefinite future without explaining how that primacy would be ensured in a geospatial domain increasingly shared with other actors including China. As relative economic power-stature of the USA on the one hand and secondary actors on the other changes, would US military dominance be the sole effective instrument sustaining hegemonic authority? Is that a realistic option? If it is, then why didn’t either candidate say so? If it is not, why didn’t either candidate explain that to the American public? Both left a measure of ambiguity hanging in the air.

    * Either way, both candidates skirted round the core issue of systemic transitional fluidity which they may have, assuming that both of them understood the processes currently in train and their implications, considered too complicated or painful to explain to their core constituencies. If this interpretation is accurate, then both are guilty of not telling the whole truth.

    * Another possible explanation is that both candidates are so confident in America’s status as the immutable global hegemon and moral compass that they simply were unable to consider the possibility of the relativity and dynamic nature of power, and its historically transient nature. If that were the case, then would America deserve more sophisticated students and practitioners of international affairs as their leader at a time of uncertain transition?

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