China and the US Presidential Election

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The 2008 American presidential election is fast approaching. Thus far, the foreign policy debate has been focused on a few divisive themes. Which candidate would deliver the most crushing retaliation in the event of an Iranian strike against Israel? Which candidate would be willing to sit down and talk with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? In pursuit of the American interest, which candidate would employ the correct tools to project US national power?

The questions are undoubtedly important, but they miss the bigger picture. US national power has diminished remarkably over the last seven years. With the economy in recession and the military bogged down in two foreign wars, America has at her disposal fewer carrots and fewer sticks with which to influence the behavior of other states than at any time in recent memory. Thus, the question is not which candidate will choose the correct tools to project US national power, but rather which candidate would choose the correct tools to restore it.

Voters must consider how each candidate would perform in a world that is increasingly dominated by Chinese interests and which candidate is best equipped to work constructively with China in order to pursue US strategic interests. However, neither campaign has said much about China. This article will attempt to explain the basics of each candidate’s China policy, how each candidate is perceived by China, and what this means for America.

At the 2005 annual dinner of the Committee of 100, a group of prominent Chinese Americans, Senator John McCain summarized his approach to China with the following approximation. “Yes, we should engage China. But we should not only engage; we also need to hedge.” McCain went on to explain that hedging does not necessarily imply an attempt to prevent China from achieving great power status, “but it does mean maintaining our military presence in East Asia, strengthening our alliance with Japan and our relations with other Asian countries, and working through groups like the APEC forum to further American interests and values.”

“Senator Obama sees our relationship with China as a combination of important elements of cooperation and important elements of competition,: says former Ambassador Jeffrey Bader, the director of the John L. Thorton China Center at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC and unofficial advisor to the Obama campaign for China policy. “He wants to broaden the cooperative elements and at the same time strengthen our ability to compete. He has a very pragmatic approach to China.”

At first glance, the distinction between the McCain strategy of engagement plus hedging and the Obama strategy of cooperation plus competition might seem like mere semantics. But there is an important difference between the two strategies. One implies the ability and right to contain if necessary, while the other merely expresses an ambition to compete. Setting aside for the moment, the question of which strategy is more diplomatic, which strategy is more realistic given the state of the world today?

Seven years ago, it might have seemed reasonable at the time to talk of containing another country, even one as weighty as China. According to Bader: “At the outset of the Bush administration there was tension between those who sought to contain China and reorient US policy in a much more aggressive way and those who wanted to pursue traditional kinds of engagement with China.”

The US and China had no diplomatic relations between 1949 and 1972. Relations recommenced with Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972, and have mostly improved steadily every year since. Sino-American relations reached a height in 2000 when the US supported China’s bid to join the World Trade Organization. At the outset of the Bush administration, however, attempts were made to portray China as the US’s next great enemy. In 2001 an American EP-3 spy plane was forced down in China, prompting an impasse between the two countries over allegations of espionage, safe return of the plane’s crew, ownership of the wreckage and the stealth technology aboard the plane, etc. All of this lent credibility to the idea that China was certain to become America’s primary enemy. After 9/11, however, the focus of America’s national security establishment shifted from China to terrorism.

Bader went on to say “I have seen the names of some of the people associated with the McCain campaign on China, those who are advising him, and they do have a certain tendency to replicate some of the divisions that we saw within the Bush administration, particularly in the earlier years. Some of the people who were associated with the harder-edged containment style that President Bush ultimately turned away from seem to be coming back through Senator McCain. In the event that Senator McCain becomes president, his administration would have to sort through the two wings to decide which one really represents his China policy.”

Whichever candidate wins the presidency, he will almost certainly be sworn in before a Democratic Congress that is gripped with concerns about the size of the bilateral trade deficit, product safety, currency manipulation and intellectual property piracy. The winner will face great pressure to address these issues. In order to resolve them artfully, it is essential that the next president possess the ability to work with the Chinese side constructively, competently, and credibly. For this reason – a purely nationalistic reason – American voters should care how each candidate is perceived by Chinese leaders.

McCain, while highly respected, is perceived as a member of the old guard. In particular, his position on Iraq makes him unattractive to Chinese policymakers. Chinese see the Iraq war as a symbol of unchecked American hubris. Not only has McCain defended the basis of the war despite its proven flaws, he has also vowed to maintain an American presence in Iraq for 100 years if necessary and to commit an unlimited number of troops. To a Chinese audience, his commitment is perceived as a defense of the vulgar notion that America can do anything it pleases anywhere in any way.

Additionally, McCain has stated that if he were president he would not attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, a moot point since the Olympics will take place well before the election, but a statement that has not escaped the scrutiny of the Chinese, who have made the Olympics a point of overwhelming national pride and prestige. On multiple occasions, McCain has characterized the Chinese government as lacking maturity. All of these factors have made China rather lukewarm to his candidacy.

Obama, too, has made comments that have been perceived as incendiary to a Chinese audience. Regarding currency manipulation, he has threatened to “take China to the mat.” Despite this, he enjoys a very strong reputation in China. For starters, he was educated at the same Hawaiian prep school as Sun Yat Sen, the father of modern China. The two men’s attendance at the Punaho School occurred nearly a century apart, so the connection is admittedly a weak one. However, because Sun cast such a large shadow over Chinese thinking, this connection nevertheless confers upon Senator Obama a certain amount of gravitas in the Chinese sphere. Moreover, Obama’s initial and continuing opposition to the Iraq war have earned him substantial credibility amongst Chinese foreign policy elites. They see this as evidence of wisdom and temperance.

Finally, Chinese thought leaders look favorably upon Obama not just for who he is, but also for what he is. According to Cao Heping, the dean of the Economics School at Peking University, Obama’s ethnicity sends a strong message to Chinese observers. “I cannot imagine China having a president who was not ethnically Chinese,” Cao said, “so it would be very impressive if America had a president who was not ethnically European.”

Cao’s phrasing belies an interesting feature of the Chinese world view. Beginning with the Opium Wars in the 19th Century, many people in China became convinced that Europe was intent on gobbling up the Middle Kingdom as a part of a plan for global domination. Indeed, the entire enterprise of the US was considered to be nothing more than a means of extending European culture and influence.

To the extent that this view has persisted, it has had a negative influence on Sino-American relations: if the US is perceived as a mechanism of imperialism, then any enhancement of America’s position in the world would be perceived as illegitimate. However, this view crumbles before Obama’s candidacy. Presented with the sight of an African descendant holding the top office, one could not possibly maintain the belief that America is a mere platform for extending European culture and influence. Even the most xenophobic, nationalistic Chinese observer would be forced to concede that America is a nation for all peoples.

China’s centrality to world affairs increases each day. Improving America’s future will depend on the ability to work constructively with the Chinese side. In this light, it seems curious to spend time asking whether the candidates would be willing to sit down to talk with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It is far more important to ask: when the candidates sit down to talk with Hu Jintao, what will they say?