China-bashing may end as US faces gridlock

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 November, 2010, 12:00am

The fervent China-bashing that took hold during the United States campaign season may die down now that midterm elections have ended. But with bipartisan frustration in the US with China's economic policies and suspicion about its military build-up, it is unlikely that the wave of Republican wins will bring big changes in policy.

Republicans took sweeping control of the House in Tuesday's midterm elections, while Democrats retained a slender grip on the Senate.

China became a popular cudgel on the campaign trail, as both Democrats and Republican candidates accused their opponents of supporting trade policies that favoured Chinese jobs.

But the ads did not succeed. In Pennsylvania, congressman Joe Sestak, a Democrat, accused his opponent Pat Toomey, a free-trade advocate, of 'fighting for jobs. In China.' Toomey won the race. In West Virginia, Democrat Spike Maynard failed in his bid to unseat congressman Nick Rahall, whom he attacked for outsourcing jobs in an ad that played Chinese music and flashed a picture of Chairman Mao Zedong .

The tone of the discussion on China will improve, says Stephen Orlins, president of the National Committee on US-China Relations.

'The 30-second soundbite blaming China for America's economic woes should disappear,' Orlins says, 'and beginning January 20 the newly-elected House and Senate should address the real issues in the US-China relationship, namely co-operation on North Korea, Iran, terrorism and climate change.'

But with a divided Congress and a Democrat in the White House, it is unclear what will actually be accomplished in terms of legislation that might affect China, says Richard Bush, a former US intelligence officer and the director for Northeast Asian policy studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. 'There's going to be a lot of gridlock, and that applies to both domestic policy and foreign policy,' Bush said.

Republicans, traditionally pro-business, have historically been friendly to China on trade issues. 'The change ... may shift the balance of power in the direction of free trade and away from legislating solutions to economic problems,' Bush says. But some analysts have seen a shift in Republicans' views towards trade with China that may make them less likely to resist Democrats' initiatives.

'There are no shortages of Republican candidates who have a very strong pro-trade position, who nonetheless have been clear that their plan is to be fairly tough on China,' says Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council.

The difference, he says, is an erosion of support for policies favourable to trading with China from their traditional base, the American business community.

Tao Wenzhao, a senior research fellow with the Institute of American studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said what worried him most was the Republicans' traditional pro-Taiwan orientation as many lawmakers have been calling for upgrading ties with the island.

But on trade, the administration would put less stress on the yuan while other issues - such as the opening of China's markets and the protection of state-owned enterprises - would be prioritised, Tao said.

Additional reporting by Cary Huang