US Presidential Election 2012

Presidential debate breaks no new ground on relations with China

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 October, 2012, 2:21am

The third and last US presidential debate - on foreign affairs - would have disappointed anyone who still hoped that the contest for leadership of the world's most powerful country would be about more than domestic issues. President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney in particular seized opportunities to steer it on to the American economy. Even the 15 minutes out of a total of 90 devoted to relations with China gravitated back to job losses at home blamed on China. If anything else set China apart, it was that the rest of the debate centred on the Muslim world and security.

Both men focused on the domestic economic aspects of the complex Sino-US relationship, without even mentioning the imminent leadership change in Beijing or the implications of China's slowing economy for American exporters, let alone China's support for US foes or intensifying territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The China-bashing that we have come to expect during US election campaigns was, however, relatively muted, compared with Romney's more strident tone on the campaign trail. Foreign affairs being perceived as his weakness, he opted to rest on his gain in opinion polls after the first presidential debate on domestic issues. He took a "me-too" presidential approach, but argued that his policies would make the US look stronger in the eyes of adversaries.

Obama described China as both an adversary and a potential partner if it followed world trade rules, while citing his record in bringing cases against China for violating them.

But Romney stood by his pledge to declare China a currency manipulator from day one of his presidency, dismissing concerns that it would trigger a trade war because, he said, there was already a silent one which the US was losing.

The US-China Business Council, representing American businesses that trade with China, has an interest, but it also has a point when it says that engagement, not political rhetoric, has led to the strengthening of the Chinese currency by 30 per cent since 2005 and is the way forward.

Whether Americans vote for emerging but fragile economic recovery under Obama, or a change of policy direction under Romney, the outcome matters to the rest of the world. According to a poll of 21 nations by the BBC World Service, foreigners overwhelmingly prefer Obama. Chinese probably don't mind so much, so long as Americans put their house in order and stop blaming others for their economic problems.