RELEASE: U.S.-China Relations in an Election Year

Taking the Long View in a Season of Heated Rhetoric

By Jacob Stokes, Nina Hachigian | March 13, 2012

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Washington, D.C. – As the election season progress, differences are emerging between conservatives and progressives on how to approach the challenge of China and the Center for American Progress Action Fund today released “U.S. China Relations in an Election Year: Taking the Long View in a Season of Heated Rhetoric.” This report examines the 10 most debated challenges in the U.S.-China relationship in the 2012 presidential and congressional campaign season, exploring differences between progressive and conservative approaches to China.

Many conservatives, including most of the Republican candidates for the presidential nomination, are critiquing the Obama administration’s policies on China, but today’s conservative approaches on China—which too often end up shortsighted, inconsistent, emotional, and belligerent—will fail. Strategies that aim for short-term political point scoring— or, even worse, calculated efforts to create a new Cold War enemy—will undermine global security. But reflexive belligerence toward China plays well in the Republican presidential primary. Already the election has seen the two top candidates for the Republican nomination fighting over who could be more confrontational toward China “on Day 1,” and a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate using racially tinged advertisements to stoke fears about Chinese ownership of U.S. debt. In The Wall Street Journal, Mitt Romney offered a plainly zero-sum view of the U.S.-China relationship.

In contrast, the Obama administration’s approach is steady, clear-eyed, and focused on results. The administration has pushed back on China multiple times—taking China to task on unfair trade, forming a united front to get China to back down from aggressive actions in the South China Sea, and selling arms to Taiwan over furious protests from Beijing. President Obama’s Asia strategy, which is deepening partnerships and engagement in the region, is designed to ensure that as China grows it contributes to peace and stability and follows the rules of the international system. At the same time the administration does not let differences prevent the United States from working with Beijing on important joint challenges such as North Korea’s nuclear program and clean energy.

This progressive approach offers the best tactic for dealing with China because for the foreseeable future China will be both a rival and a partner. Our policymakers have to play the long game, ensuring our strategies for China make sense not just during campaign seasons but for this year, this decade, and beyond. Fostering successful policies toward China requires a steady hand and a concerted effort to refrain from overheated tirades and knee-jerk responses. For their part, the American people do not want a needlessly antagonistic relationship with China. In a poll conducted at the end of 2011, 7 out of 10 respondents said strong relations between the United States and China are “somewhat” or “very” important. While Americans are rightly concerned with Chinese economic policies, when asked to choose in a 2010 poll whether to undertake friendly cooperation and engagement with China rather than actively working to limit the growth of China’s power, more than two-thirds of those surveyed thought that the United States should pursue engagement.

The 10 most debated challenges in the U.S.-China relationship in the 2012 presidential and congressional campaign season include:

  • Ensuring fair trade. The Obama administration’s policy of vigorous enforcement and results-oriented dialogue beats conservatives’ refusal to invest in American competitiveness at home; empty, antagonistic rhetoric toward China; and highly inconsistent positions on trade cases. The Obama administration has announced a new trade-enforcement unit and has brought more major trade cases against China than any of its predecessors.
  • Progress on currency. The Obama administration’s efforts, on its own and with other nations, to pressure China to deal with its undervalued currency have resulted in progress, though more remains to be done. The administration is keeping the pressure on. The conservative answer is both needlessly antagonistic and ineffective.
  • China owning U.S. debt. China owning just more than 8 percent of our federal debt is not leverage China can use without unacceptably harming its own interests. Conservative hysterics and fearmongering about this complex issue is misplaced.
  • Chinese direct investment. Chinese investment in our country can be a major source of capital and jobs going forward. We should allow proven national security processes to weed out threats to our nation and avoid excessive paranoia around Chinese purchases, lest we miss investment-led growth opportunities. Conservatives should take heed.
  • Addressing China’s military. China’s military has grown rapidly in recent years, albeit from a very low base. While some technologies are worrisome, the United States retains a huge advantage over China. The Obama administration is responding to China’s military buildup but is not exaggerating the threat, in contrast to conservative efforts to use the “China threat” to justify unsustainable increases in military spending.

China policy via short-term political point scoring may help campaigns but it does not help the United States. In fact, a fair and mature relationship with China will serve U.S. interests in creating jobs and sustainable economic growth. Steady U.S.- China relations will promote stability in the Asia-Pacific region and security for the global commons. And it will enable both nations to help address transnational problems such as climate change, pandemic disease, energy security, and terrorism. The challenge for the United States is to press China to make responsible choices that contribute to stability, prosperity, peace, and human rights. This means the way forward for the United States is to combine strong and forward-looking bonds with our Asian allies old and new with a strong relationship with China. The United States should not seek to begin another Cold War or “contain” China. Instead, the United States should welcome China’s rise, while at the same time insisting that China adhere to internationally accepted rules and norms of behavior at home and abroad.

Download this report (pdf)

Download the introduction and summary (pdf)

To speak with experts on this topic, please contact Christina DiPasquale at 202.481.8181 or [email protected].