Debate stance on China shows cynicism of two US candidates

Both candidates can talk tough for the benefit of the voters but they know there is little profit in carrying out the threats when in office

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 October, 2012, 4:01am

It is hard to know which was more hurtful to the "feelings of the Chinese people": that both candidates in yesterday's US presidential debate took such a combative stance towards China, or that they spent so little time doing it.

Barack Obama called China "an adversary" and boasted he had launched more trade complaints against Beijing in four years than George Bush's administration did in eight.

And he confirmed what many Chinese business people have long believed; that the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement being pursued by the US is aimed primarily at exerting pressure on Beijing, which has been excluded from the talks.

Mitt Romney, meanwhile, accused Beijing of waging a silent trade war against the US and of stealing American jobs.

"They're stealing our intellectual property, our patents, our designs, our technology, hacking into our computers, counterfeiting our goods," he thundered, reiterating his pledge to declare China a currency manipulator on his first day in office, opening the way for trade sanctions.

In all, however, in a foreign policy debate lasting more than an hour and a half, the rival candidates spent just six and a half minutes discussing China, the world's second largest economy, the biggest exporter of goods to the US, and America's largest international creditor.

As a result, Chinese viewers were left feeling both hard done by and short-changed; slighted and ignored. A cursory straw poll of reactions recalled the New Yorker who complained of a local restaurant: "the food's terrible, and the portions are so small".

This conflicted response reflects China's mixed feelings towards America. According to an extensive survey of attitudes earlier this year by the Pew Research Center, only 43 per cent of Chinese respondents professed a positive view of the United States, while 48 held a negative impression.

At the same time, however, the majority of Chinese applaud US notions of democracy, while more admire American ideas, customs and business methods than disapprove.

The same survey also suggests why the two US presidential candidates were so ready to bash China - and why they were happy to spend so little time on such an important subject.

Their aggressive stance is easily explained: no candidate is going to win votes blaming America's malaise on the economic failings of his own electorate. Lambasting a foreign scapegoat, however, is always going to be popular. And China is the obvious target.

China looms large in the American imagination; far larger than it looms in reality. Asked in the Pew survey "Which is the leading economic power, the US, China, Japan, or the European Union?", 41 per cent of American respondents said China is the world's most powerful economy. Just 40 per cent named the US.

As a result, US public concerns about China are acute. Some 71 per cent of the public believe the loss of US jobs to China is a serious problem, compared with fewer than 20 per cent of officials, business executives and academics.

Americans at large believe China poses a greater threat to the US than global warming, and more of the public think it is important to be tough on China over trade than believe the US should build a strong relationship with Beijing.

Among more knowledgable respondents - officials, business people, researchers and the like - fear of China is far less pronounced.

Clearly, however, US politicians are cynical enough to play on the public's ill-informed fears if they think it will win them votes. But although both candidates are happy to talk tough on China during the campaign, each knows there would be little profit in carrying out his threats, and that it would make more sense to tread softly once in office.

Better, therefore, not to dwell too long on the subject in debate.Incidentally, only 5 per cent of US respondents correctly identified the European Union as the world's leading economy. Despite its debt crisis, last year the EU boasted a gross domestic product US$2.5 trillion bigger than the US, and US$10 trillion greater than China.

Similarly the value of the EU's external trade was 22 per cent bigger than America's and 25 per cent greater than China's, while Europe's foreign aid budget dwarfed those of both countries.

However you measure it, the EU is by far the world's most powerful economy.

To be fair, though, few even in Europe realise it. Only 17 per cent of Germans knew the EU is the world's biggest economy; 62 per cent said it is China.