During Monday (Oct. 22, 2012) night’s presidential debate, the candidates beat their breasts vying to be tougher on China. Barack Obama pointed to his accomplishments, while Mitt Romney attacked the president for being afraid to label China a currency manipulator. The amount of time devoted to America’s largest creditor and potential enemy shows that managing the relationship with China is critical for whoever sits in the Oval Office.
Thousands miles away across the Pacific, China, also facing leadership change, is largely indifferent to the debate, at least on the surface. The Chinese official media have been mocking the candidates’ stances on China and suggesting their audience shouldn’t take the anti-China talk seriously. Even Chinese dissidents are not impressed. Everyone understands that what is said before November 7 is just campaign rhetoric.
The Chinese Communist regime can afford to ignore the talk because it knows it already has the United States by the nose. Not only does the United States need China for iPhones and cheap toys, it also needs China’s money to finance the debt and its strategic cooperation in Iran and North Korea as well as in the South China Sea. Whoever ends up in the White House will have no choice but to work with China.
The dissidents in particular have heard tough talk before. It tends to fade away once a candidate is in office, leaving the dissident community disappointed.
Shockingly absent from the debate was any mention of human rights in China and any discussion of America’s long-term strategic concerns. By almost any accounting, China’s human rights record has worsened over the last four years. President Obama, like his predecessor, has treated strategic economic cooperation with China as paramount, even as China remains the only country in the world to have a Nobel Peace Prize winner sitting in jail. Liu Xiaobo, awarded the prize in 2010, is serving an 11-year prison term for peacefully advocating constitutional reform. Thousands of other prisoners of conscience have disappeared behind the bamboo curtain.
But the candidates’ failures of omission are not a matter of party. Both failed to present either a geopolitical or a moral grand strategy toward China. The key questions are, what is China’s endgame, and can China rise peacefully? China seeks hegemony in the region and in the world; it has a clear goal of overtaking America by the middle of this century. Given these differing visions of the future, clashing national interests, and disparate values and political systems, China’s rise is not likely to be peaceful. Some sort of conflict or war between the United States and China is inevitable; the closer China comes to catching up with America, the more likely the two countries will clash.
The U.S. strategic pivot to Asia is good, but without a clear strategic goal and sufficient resources it won’t work. Neither tough talk on the currency nor all the trade complaints in the WTO will make a bit of difference in the overall scheme of things. Of course, China has been manipulating its currency, but labeling it a manipulator alone won’t shrink the trade deficit, nor will it return jobs to America.
The reason is simple: A totalitarian regime like China manipulates everything. China can do this and get away with it because the Clinton administration (with strong Republican support in the Congress) granted China permanent Normal Trade Relations in 2000, which effectively allowed trade with China to trump all other U.S. strategic concerns. This was done despite President Clinton’s strident campaign promises to the human rights community to get tough on China.
The United States still has huge leverage over China, but that leverage is shrinking: China needs our markets for its exports, it needs our technology, and, despite its own ambitions, it still relies on the United States to lead with respect to global financial markets and world politics. Unfortunately, neither Democrats nor Republicans have the wisdom or courage to use this country’s influence to political or economic advantage for the United States.
Confucius said that anyone who can’t see the future can hardly avoid troubles in the present. If the U.S. presidential candidates could see through the layers of the Chinese Communist regime’s lies, they would realize that the only policy option for America is to use whatever leverage we have to push China gradually and in an orderly fashion toward democracy. Anything short of that is likely to mean disaster for America and the world. The specter of China as a true world power may be sobering, but we should be even more concerned about a China in chaos.
Few believed Winston Churchill when he warned of the danger posed by the rise of Nazi Germany. The world preferred to trust Hitler’s declaration that he did not intend to wage a war of aggression. That blind trust led to catastrophe and at least 60 million deaths. On November 7, the American people should elect the candidate who has the better grasp of the realities within China and can shepherd U.S. policies so as to capitalize on those realities.
U.S. China Policy: Incoherent and Dangerous
The cement is hardly dry on America’s new policy to forge new Asia-Pacific alliances, and already the post–Iraq endeavor is coming across as a collection of incoherent contradictions. Consider:
*We say we want to build closer ties with China, but our two leading presidential candidates are making political hay out of its trade and industrial policies at just the moment Beijing is struggling to maintain economic growth. President Obama has filed two cases against China at the World Trade Organization in the last two months, one of them just last week. They are both intended as vote-getters in the auto-industry states; neither is expected to make much practical difference.
*We assure the Chinese that America’s new “pivot” to Asia and the Pacific is not aimed at a rising China, but we are forging new defense ties that are clearly intended to make a ring around the mainland. The latest efforts involve docking reciprocity with New Zealand naval vessels and training and military exchange programs with Myanmar (formerly Burma). Look at a map. Myanmar provides China’s southwestern provinces with strategically vital sea access. Would the U.S. like the People’s Liberation Army soldiers training in Mexico?
*Most immediately and explosively, we are standing at the edge of a territorial dispute between China and Japan that could involve American military action if it gets much further out of hand. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta tried to play the honest broker when he visited Tokyo and Beijing last week. The fact is the U.S. is legally bound by the U.S.–Japan Security Treaty to defend Japan in any attack on territory it holds.
Dragging China into U.S. politics has been time-honored political fodder at election time for many campaign cycles. (Before China it was Japan. Remember?) Rarely, if ever, does such fire-breathing amount to much. But it might this time. Obama went further than blustery rhetoric when he filed a suit at the WTO last week charging China with illegally subsidizing its auto and auto-parts industries.
It is the third WTO suit this administration has pending in Geneva, the other two involving U.S. car sales in China and China’s rare earth minerals. There seems little question that China, even as it tries to reduce its dependence on exports, makes use of hard-to-identify industrial subsidies. But do we want a trade war in this global economic environment? We are getting close to one.
China has already filed a retaliatory WTO suit against the U.S., challenging its anti-dumping rules. I agree with TFT’s Josh Boak: What we want right now from China is not a string of trade rows and the ill will that goes with them, but a strong economy. The stakes this time are simply too high to allow for the penny ante politics of past campaigns.
None of this was helpful background for Defense Secretary Panetta’s tour of the region last week. While Panetta was at pains to reassure Beijing officials that Washington had no designs to “contain” China, he had a tough time of it. His arrival in Beijing from Tokyo coincided with an announcement that the U.S. and Japan had agreed to build an advanced missile defense system on Japanese territory – the second such installation the Pentagon will operate next door to the mainland.
“The purpose of this is to enhance our ability to defend Japan,” Panetta explained amid sharp criticism from Chinese officials. “Defending Japan” is an old chestnut in American military circles, used to explain just about anything Washington chooses to do at the far end of the Pacific. But Panetta, like all of his predecessors, never identified a potential aggressor. Ostensibly, the enemy is North Korea. But it does not take too much to imagine how the deployment of this level of technology looked from the Chinese side.
Further complicating Panetta’s visit – you have to feel for the guy – were the protests and violence in China over territorial rights of a small string of islands that lie between Japan and China – and which are thought to sit atop large deposits of oil and gas. Panetta made a stab at urging both sides to settle the dispute peaceably. It is the kind of “balancing role” the U.S. says it wants to play in its “pivot” strategy.
But Panetta came off sounding weak and irrelevant. “By virtue of both countries understanding how important that relationship is with the United States,” Panetta reasoned, “if we can encourage both of them to move forward and not have this dispute get out of hand, we can play a positive role.” Anyone care to shave the fuzz off that remark and tell us what it might mean?
The Sino–Japanese dispute over the Senkaku Islands (the Diaoyus in Chinese) is centuries old, and the issue has periodically become a flashpoint for nationalists on either side. It is complex and tends to give rise to searing emotions rooted deeply in history, notably in China. No Westerner is going to referee a dispute of this kind, unless it goes to the U.N. Indeed, it was revealing to see how ill-equipped a top U.S. official was to weigh in on the matter. The defense secretary came off as the uninvited stranger at the party.
There are lessons in last week’s display. China’s accumulating influence has everyone’s attention now, but this does not mean it can be stopped. It is a fact of history, and it falls to us – and the Japanese, among others – to learn how best to accommodate it. Certainly we Americans have a role to play in Asia. But as Panetta discovered the hard way, we cannot expect to maintain the pre-eminence we enjoyed for the second half of the last century.
On this side of the pond, what we saw last week was a truly remarkable absence of coordination. The Pentagon has long played an oversized part in U.S. foreign policy. So the State Department talks about a pivot and “balancing,” while the Defense Department aims new defense systems at the mainland and consolidates ties with as many of China’s neighbors as are willing to get into the act. As to trade policy, it is out there on its own, paying no apparent attention to anybody.
What We Need to Hear From the Candidates on China
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.