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.

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