Posted on June 11th, 2012
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s harsh talk about China has been drawing widespread attention.
As a former financial executive campaigning on fixing the economy with his business skills, Romney has promised to go further in confronting China than President Obama and former President George W. Bush. However, foreign policy analysts say his position is very difficult to maintain and Romney is likely to follow his recent predecessors’ China policies if he wins the election.
Among all the elements of Romney’s China plan, his vows to label China as a currency manipulator on his first day in office and counter its hegemonic ambitions with indomitable U.S military power have been hotly debated. Experts’ reading of his stance is that Romney is trying to differentiate himself from President Obama and his harsh talk will eventually give way to the mainstream consensus that a constructive relationship with China is needed to get things done.
“It is important to remember that he is a candidate, and candidates use hawkish rhetoric for election purposes,” said Joel Wuthnow, a research fellow at the China and the World Program at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.
Meanwhile, experts and his Republican opponents alike question the feasibility of Romney’s hawkish words. They say Romney might have gone too far in trying to draw a contrast between himself and President Obama. Former GOP presidential candidate and former ambassador to Beijing Jon Huntsman has repeatedly criticized Romney for over-simplifying the China issue. Others say Romney’s China remarks, if read closely, leave many important questions untouched and unanswered.
“Romney is also advocating tax cuts. I don’t see where he will get the money for the defense he is making,” said Jonathan Pollack, a senior fellow at the John L. Thornton China Center at Brookings Institute, a Washington-based think tank. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
“They create an overall impression that if he were to be elected, he has two options: he can either re-emphasis these goals, but he will have to figure out a way to pay for them,” Pollack said. “Or he has to walk back, in which case he doesn’t look very credible.”
As for the currency manipulator label, the “pragmatic” Romney probably would either steer clear of any yuan labeling in order to navigate domestic pressures to get touch on China while managing the complex relationship with Beijing or wouldn’t pursue any punitive measures afterwards, according to Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based bipartisan think tank.
“It will surely make the Chinese unhappy,” she said. “But a label is just a label.”
Glaser said the next president, no matter who he is, probably will follow the great deal of consistency demonstrated in America’s China policy during the terms of past five presidents: economic and diplomatic engagement paired with strategic hedging. Romney is no different ,despite his more hawkish China talk.
“We wouldn’t see drama tic changes in domestic policies towards China,” she said.
Daniel C. Sneider, associate director of the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, said targeting China has been a “persistent feature” of U.S. presidential politics since 1992.When campaigning, Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama all have assailed the incumbent for being soft on Beijing and they have all taken a much more cautious approach after assuming presidency. Sneider said what they were doing and what Romney is trying to do now is to appeal to the sense that China is somehow responsible for the loss of America manufacturing.
“It is a bit of a popular thing to do,” he said. “No matter who is running, these issues get raised.”
Sneider said though Romney is lambasting the Obama administration for being a “near supplicant” to Beijing and vowing to restore American leadership that he says has dissipated under Obama, he probably wouldn’t push as hard as Obama does in some areas, such as human rights and the South China Sea dispute. He questioned whether Romney would handle the case of Cheng Guangcheng, the blind Chinese activist who recently escaped house arrest and arrived in the United States, any differently.
“If you are a Republican president, you hear the voice of human rights activists, but you also hear the corporations pretty loudly,” he said. “The corporates are the ones to be heard much more clearly.”
Though there is general agreement that these hawkish words will eventually fade if Romney gets elected, experts say they shouldn’t be readily discarded as mere political rhetoric .In fact they seem to reflect a profoundly pessimistic view of future U.S-China relations: confrontation with the rising China is gaining momentum.
The vision of great power competition partly comes from Republicans’ historical skepticism about a more positive relationship with China. The popular belief is that China is using its power in a much more assertive fashion and if the U.S. adds military strength, China will be more mindful of U.S. security interests. Romney’s foreign policy advisors are generally associated with this traditional concept of national security concerns.
“One way or another, he[Romney] is determined to describe China in potentially adversarial terms,” Pollack said. “This is never going to be an easy relationship. It is hard to build but easy to undermine.”
Despite the amount of harsh political rhetoric targeting China, experts agree that U.S- China relations are in good shape. According to Wuthnow, there is very clear understanding in the White House that both sides need to bypass their disagreements in order to focus on “bigger issues at stake.” Shi Zehua, associate dean of the School of International Relations and Diplomacy at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said policy makers in Beijing know very well how to interpret rhetoric in the United States.
“On one hand, to show a leader’s steadiness and constancy, Romney is likely to stick to his pledge for some time after getting elected,” he said. “On the other hand, as a moderate conservative who hardly has strong beliefs on any issue, he is highly expected to choose flip-flopping and opportunism.”
Though China-bashing has become a bit of a ritual in U.S. presidential politics, there is general agreement that the rhetoric has little influence on how Americans cast their votes. The majority of voters don’t like China, according to an ABC news/Washington Post poll in February (52 percent of participants expressed an unfavorable view of the country). But experts say that the economy, not China, is much more likely to occupy voters’ minds in November.
“The vast majority will cast their votes based on issues that have nothing to do with foreign policy,” Glaser said.
According to Glaser, if Romney’s China attack has any impact at all, it will be on people who lost their livelihoods because of job outsourcing to China. Romney might win over some support if he can make a credible argument.
“But those numbers,” she said. “ are very, very small.”