US Presidential Election 2012

Tough talk on China during US elections still mostly talk

Ed Gresser says, in fact, US policy choices may no longer set tone of ties

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 October, 2012, 1:17am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 October, 2012, 2:21am

It’s a familiar tableau in American presidential campaigns: the party out of power runs against China policy and promises a tough new approach; the administration in power does its best with an unsatisfactory relationship. Mitt Romney is no different.

Once alarmed by this sort of rhetoric, China now just sits back and waits for election season to pass. Would a Romney administration be any different? Perhaps – but if there’s to be a real breach, it will probably come from a different source.

Sino-American ties have been uneasy for a generation, given the mesh of prickly issues surrounding the relationship – an unfriendly accommodation on the status of Taiwan, an alloyed co-operation over opposing North Korea’s nuclear programme, growing concerns about muscular Chinese approaches to maritime sovereignty, as well as the intellectual property piracy and currency issues.

In a remarkable Brookings Institution dialogue, Chinese scholar Wang Jisi describes a mindset among Chinese government and scholarly elites that could easily push the relationship into crisis. He describes a consensus, or near-consensus, in Beijing that the structure of global politics makes a basically co-operative relationship all but impossible: “It is strongly believed in China that the ultimate goal of the United States in world affairs is to maintain its hegemony and dominance and, as a result, Washington will attempt to prevent the emerging powers, in particular China, from achieving their goals and enhancing their stature.”

If Wang’s description is accurate, then the future is likely to be difficult regardless of American policy choices. But if American choices over the next year are the decisive factor, then the future is likely to be much like the past two decades.

A study of American opinion on China, conducted this summer by the Pew Research Centre, reveals a public sympathetic to abstract calls for “toughness”, but uninterested in a fight. The picture, then, is of a public that’s not totally satisfied with policy, but by no means wants to walk away.

In practice – though with one big exception – the actual proposals that follow Romney’s threat to walk away fall far short not only of “fresh and fearless”, but of policy that differs much from the president’s.

Romney’s campaign document includes five points: a pledge to “designate China a currency manipulator and impose countervailing duties”; a promise to spend more money for the US customs service to inspect imports; a similar promise to spend more money to file lawsuits at the World Trade Organisation; a pledge to “use unilateral and multilateral punitive measures to deter unfair Chinese practices”, which appears to mean enforcing anti-dumping laws; an end to US government procurement from China until China commits to join the WTO’s government procurement agreement.

Most of this sounds modest and technical – and it is. More striking still, it’s mainly a list the Obama administration has already accomplished.

In effect, most of Romney’s proposals are promises to continue the Obama administration’s policy. The exception is Romney’s plan to declare China a “currency manipulator” and impose an across-the-board “countervailing duty” – a big tariff – on Chinese goods.

The prospect is perhaps not so much “fearless” as “reckless”.

So should observers, particularly those in China, then discount the campaign’s China debate as simply a tired repeat of the past? Not entirely – fearless but ill-advised promises can often lead their authors into traps of credibility and face, and humans beings often miscalculate.

But they should at least be sceptical. And if Wang Jisi is right, the greater possibility of a permanent breach looks likely to come from the other side of the Pacific.

Edward Gresser directs Progressive Economy, a trade and global-economy research programme at the GlobalWorks Foundation in Washington, DC. Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online.