Sunday, September 9, 2012

How much do Obama and Romney differ on China?

With one potentially important exception and with several differences in emphasis and tone, the treatment of China in the platforms of the two major political parties and in the statements of the two presidential nominees suggest a remarkable degree of consensus on American policy toward China this year.  I say “remarkable” because of the intense polarization on so many policy issues these days, and the high level of controversy over China policy in some past presidential election campaigns (especially 1960, 1980, 1992, and 2000).  So far at least, China does not appear to be the contentious issue that it once was.


What are the similarities in approach and the differences in emphasis?

·       Both platforms declared an American interest in a “peaceful and prosperous China,” but the Republican platform went on to say that “we will welcome even more the development of a democratic China,” whereas the Democratic platform spoke of the importance of “respecting the universal human rights of the Chinese people.”  This difference echoes a long-standing difference in emphasis between those who focus on a change in China’s domestic political institutions and those who focus on the promotion of a broader set of human rights, but it does not suggest any concrete ways in which the China policies of the two candidates might differ.

·       Compared with the Democratic Party platform, the Republican counterpart has a far longer list of American concerns about China, including its “pursuit of advanced military capabilities without any apparent need; a barbaric one-child policy involving forced abortion; the erosion of democracy in Hong Kong and its destabilizing claims in the South China Sea.”  Relatedly, the Republican platform did not include a commitment to try to build a “cooperative relationship” with China, as did the Democratic platform, which listed Korea, Iran, and climate change among the issues that present “opportunities for cooperation.”   And yet neither the Republican platform nor statements by Governor Romney have included a description of China as a “strategic competitor” – as George W. Bush did in the 2000 campaign, let alone a portrait of Beijing as a prospective adversary.

·        Both platforms reiterated the American commitment to Taiwan’s security and the American interest that the future of Taiwan be resolved peacefully that are embodied in the Taiwan Relations Act.  But the Republican platform went on to take a number of other positions favorable to Taipei, including supporting Taiwan’s: “full participation” in multilateral organizations, “the timely” sale of defensive arms” to the island, and “free trade agreements status” for Taiwan-- presumably a somewhat awkward reference to either a free trade agreement with the U.S. or Taiwanese membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  But these differences pale in comparison to the statements on Taiwan policy by Ronald Reagan during the 1980 campaign and by George W. Bush just after his inauguration in 2001.

These are all interesting differences of emphasis:  the Republican platform more supportive of democracy in China, the Democratic platform willing to call for a cooperative relationship with Beijing, and the Republic platform somewhat more forthcoming with regard to Taiwan.  But in themselves, these differences do not suggest major differences in China policy no matter who wins the election in November.
The more important and potentially significant differences involve trade policy. Both platforms called for a “firm response” (as the Republicans put it) to unfair Chinese trade practices.  But they differed over which party would do the better job of being firm.  The Democratic platform claimed that the Obama Administration had already taken a tough position with Beijing by bringing trade cases against China to the World Trade Organization at “twice the rate of the previous administration.”  But the Republican platform declared that it would take a “new Republican Administration” to address trade issues successfully.  In a fuller presentation of his position, Mitt Romney’s September 2011 “Believe in America” manifesto accused the Obama Administration of having “singularly failed in handling commercial relations with China. He came into office with high hopes that displays of American goodwill toward Beijing would lead to better relations across all fronts.  Predictably, the good will has not been reciprocated. ..  Having tried and failed with ‘engagement,’ the Obama Administration now behaves as if the United States has no leverage” in dealing with China and has “acquiesced” to the “one-way arrangements the Chinese have come to enjoy.”
Romney’s “Believe in America” plan went on to call for a policy of “confronting China” on trade issues,” being prepared to “walk away” from trade negotiations with Beijing, showing a willingness to “say‘no more’ to a relationship that too often benefits them and harms us” and to “put on the table all unilateral actions within our power to ensure that the Chinese adhere to existing agreements.”

More specifically, Romney has declared that among other executive orders he would issue on the first day of the new administration, he would declare Beijing to be engaged in “currency manipulation” and instruct the Commerce Department to impose countervailing duties on China “if it does not move quickly to float its currency.”  – (This charge that China manipulates its currency was repeated in the Republican Party platform, but without the accompanying promise that a President Romney would issue a formal declaration to that effect in his first day in office.) This is reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s promise in the 1998 election campaign that he would revoke China’s most-favored-nation status if its human rights situation had not improved, but so far is different in several respects:  it is not as prominent a feature of Romney’s campaign rhetoric as it was of Clinton’s; and the consequences of such a declaration are less immediate, since China would doubtless file bring a case against the U.S. before the World Trade Organization, and such a case would almost certainly delay the imposition of the American countervailing duties.  For those interested in a stable U.S.-China relationship, this feature of the Romney platform is a matter of concern, but should not yet be cause for alarm.
Otherwise, the Romney campaign appears to be promising a high degree of continuity in American policy toward China.  There are differences in the way in which China is portrayed, but they are not as great as they were during the 2000 campaign between George W. Bush and Al Gore, let alone in the 1998 campaign between Clinton and George H.W. Bush.  This suggests that, unless there are unexpected developments in China’s domestic or foreign policies, there is likely to be a high degree of continuity in American policy toward China no matter whether Obama or Romney wins the 2008 election.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Will China's new leadership present an opportunity for the U.S.?

I was forced to suspend this blog when I suffered a serious stroke about fourteen months ago. Now that I have recovered enough to start writing again, I’m looking forward to resume sharing my thoughts about China, Asia, Sino-American relations, and US relations with Asia in the months ahead.

I plan to begin with comments on the leadership transitions that are about to occur in China and the United States and their likely impact on the U.S.-China relationship.  I’ll start with China, and write about the U.S. presidential election in my next posting.


A few weeks back, I was asked to participate in a discussion organized around the question of whether China’s new leadership will present an “opportunity for the United States.”   My schedule didn’t permit me to accept that invitation, but I did reflect a bit on the intriguing question it contained.  I concluded that the opportunities presented by the impending leadership transition at the Eighteenth Party Congress are far greater for China than for the U.S., but if the new Chinese leadership elected at the congress seizes those opportunities, there could be positive consequences for the United States and for the Sino-American relationship as well as for China itself.


The most important question posed by China’s leadership transition is whether the country’s new leaders, presumably headed by Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, will be prepared to boldly and successfully address the key challenges facing their country at home and abroad.  The domestic challenges are numerous, but the most important ones are an economic model that overemphasizes state-directed investment and exports as engines of growth, enterprise, depresses household consumption, privileges large state-owned enterprises, restricts  credit to private entrepreneurs, and offers limited outlets for the investment of household savings.  Economically, this model has produced a property bubble, a weak banking system, and the chronic risk of inflation.  Politically, China remains vulnerable to popular unrest and, as a result, maintains tight control over the press, social media, and non-governmental organizations.

The issue is whether the new leadership will have the desire and the power to deal with these challenges.  At least one leader who will retire at the Party Congress, Premier Wen Jiabao, has forcefully advocated limited political reform and has repeatedly warned of the unsustainability of China’s imbalanced economic model.  But it is not yet clear that his views will be shared by a majority of the incoming leadership.  The dismissal of Bo Xilai, the populist leader of Chongqing, is a positive development for proponents of economic and political reform, but Bo’s are not isolated views in the Party, and it remains to be seen whether the positions he espoused will be championed by other incoming members of the Politburo and, if so, what share of power they will hold.

Internationally, the steady increase in Chinese military power, Beijing’s increasingly muscular assertion of territorial claims in the East China and South China Seas, and the lack of transparency about its military budgets and foreign policy objectives have led to a growing willingness among neighboring states to engage in at least a “soft balancing of China, as well as a more open American hedging against the risks posed by China’s rise..  Some unethical Chinese economic activities in the Third World, Beijing’s failure to support or fully honor international sanctions regimes against countries like Iran, Syria, and North Korea, and its reluctance to more fuller open its economy to imports and incoming investment, have posed serious reputational risks to China and have limited China’s efforts to develop its soft power. As in domestic affairs, the upcoming Party Congress presents the opportunity to select a new generation of leaders who are prepared to address these international issues, but whether the Party ‘s new collective leadership will tilt in that direction is as yet unknown.
If China’s new leaders are more oriented to political and economic reform at home, and more conciliatory and cooperative abroad, that will indeed present opportunities for the United States. Indeed, it will present opportunities for both countries to forge a closer and more stable relationship. But, in the first instance, the opportunities are China’s –