More than a punchbag

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 October, 2010, 12:00am

In the run-up to the presidential election in the United States two years ago, China was not a campaign issue. The country was barely mentioned in televised debates between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain. Now, however, with Americans preparing to elect a new Congress next week, China is very much an issue.

China is a punchbag for both Republicans and Democrats, blamed for America's current economic ills. Many politicians, it seems, are willing to capitalise on a growing protectionist mentality among the voters.

Historically, the party in power loses seats in the Congress during mid-term elections. If the Democrats lose their majority in the House of Representatives, the leadership of House committees will change hands, with the chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee most likely going to Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, currently the ranking Republican member.

For China, that would be bad news. Ros-Lehtinen, born in Cuba, is an anti-communist who, 10 years ago, voted against permanent normal trade relations with China and, five years ago, co-sponsored a bill calling on the US to scrap the 'one China' policy and establish formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

This month, days before the Norwegian Nobel Committee conferred the 2010 Peace Prize on jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo , she wrote to President Obama and asked him to press for the 'unconditional release' of Liu and of Gao Zhisheng , a leading human rights lawyer who disappeared and is believed to be in custody.

While the House committee does not make policy, it can certainly create huge problems for the Obama administration by calling hearings and making public statements.

No high-level official in the current administration is a champion of relations with China, the way Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski were in the 1970s and 1980s, and Treasury secretary Henry Paulson was during the last administration.

Current congressional sentiment towards China was reflected in the 348-to-79 vote in the House of Representatives last month when it approved legislation to allow the US to apply sanctions against any country that manipulates the value of its currency. The bill was clearly meant to target China.

The latest Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey, conducted in June, found that nearly two-thirds of Americans believed China practised unfair trade and a majority was opposed to having a free trade agreement with China. A substantial minority viewed China's rise as a 'critical' threat and, while few were 'very worried' that China could become a military threat, nearly half were 'somewhat worried'.

However, Americans are by no means hostile towards China. In fact, more than two-thirds of Americans think the US should undertake friendly co-operation and engagement with China rather than work to limit the growth of Chinese power.

America's mood is sombre and, while US influence in the world is still seen as greater than that of any other country, the perception is that American influence has declined since 2008 and will continue to decline.

Moreover, a large majority of Americans think that unless the situation changes, the next generation will be economically worse off, a significant shift from the traditional optimistic belief in continued improvement in living standards from generation to generation in the US.

In fact, looking forward 50 years, only a third of Americans think that the US will continue to be the world's leading power. But this is not necessarily seen as bad since a large majority believes the US is playing the role of world policeman more than it should be.

So, Americans generally accept China's rise, albeit with a degree of caution. Beijing should view the current anti-China sentiments in the congressional elections within that context.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator