The China card

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2007, 12:00am

The war in Iraq is by far the most important issue in the American presidential campaign, which is gearing up in earnest. But other issues, notably China, are attracting the interest of voters as well as candidates. In fact, a debate last week between seven Democratic presidential candidates - including all three frontrunners, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Senator Barack Obama and John Edwards - focused in part on Sino-US relations.

Since the Democrats are expected to strengthen their control of both houses of Congress in elections next year - and possibly even capture the White House - their views on China are important.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, many of the statements made by the candidates reflected a protectionist attitude. Congressman Dennis Kucinich, whose ideas have become increasingly mainstream despite his low support ratings, took pride in the fact that he was the only candidate 'who actually voted against China trade' by opposing most-favoured-nation trade status for China in 1999.

While Senator Christopher Dodd made it clear that he did not want a tariff war with China, he did accuse Beijing of manipulating its currency and employing slave labour, and suggested the United States should have suspended imports from China after reports of tainted pet food, toothpaste and toys.

One interesting theme was that big business was as much to blame as China for America's problems. 'Big corporate America is driving American policy with respect to China,' said Mr Edwards. 'They get their way, and the American people lose.' Senator Obama echoed the theme, saying he wanted to 'give a voice to American workers'.

Asked about China's 'huge military build-up', former senator Mike Gravel - whose public support is low to nonexistent - pointed out: 'They're only 10 per cent of American defence. They haven't had a tremendous increase.' He added that 'this amount of demagoguery is shameful'.

On human rights, Senator Joseph Biden said the US should designate China as a violator at the United Nations. If elected, he said, he would appoint a UN ambassador who would 'call them on[to] the carpet'.

In this he was supported by Senator Clinton, who said: 'The Chinese respect us if we actually call them [to task] on their misbehaviour and their breaches of human rights, economic activities and other kinds of problems.' Mr Edwards decried the loss of American manufacturing jobs. 'In my hometown, the mill that my father worked in - that mill's closed now,' he said. 'The jobs are gone ... We have not held China accountable, and the result is the loss of American jobs, the struggling of American families, the struggles of the middle class.'

The sense that China should be held accountable for the problems Americans face today was repeated throughout the discussion. Much of what the candidates said reflected widespread unhappiness in the US with the economic situation. While in the past Americans had a sense of confidence, including a conviction that things would improve from one generation to another, it has melted away. Now, there is apprehension that the country is facing problems - almost always blamed on China - that do not lend themselves to easy solutions. Instead, there is an increasing sense that globalisation has been bad for the country, and that China is responsible for the impact of globalisation.

President George W. Bush entered office in 2001 calling the mainland a 'strategic competitor' and wanting to bolster Taiwan against it. Yet his administration has managed to work with Beijing constructively on a whole range of issues, including the 'war on terrorism', North Korea, Iran and Taiwan. But whoever heads the next US administration, the Sino-US relationship is likely to encounter more serious problems, in particular with rising protectionism.

Interestingly, despite Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian's continuing antics, such as holding a referendum on joining the UN, Taiwan was not mentioned even once during the discussion of Sino-US relations. While Democrats see the need to deal with Beijing, they evidently do not see Taiwan as an important card that can be played.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator