Commentary

China: The Mishandled Issue in the U.S. Presidential Election Campaign

U.S. presidential election campaigns are supposed to include sober discussions of the most crucial issues facing the country. Unfortunately, the reality rarely corresponds to that ideal, and the current conduct of candidates seeking their party’s nomination for the 2016 election is no exception.

One issue that should be front and center in the campaign is U.S. policy toward China. Instead, that topic receives surprisingly little attention—especially compared to the obsession over every aspect of Middle East policy. When it is not ignored, candidates too often take shrill positions merely to score cheap political points with disgruntled constituencies. Given the great importance of the bilateral relationship, such posturing is unfortunate and could become dangerous.

The lack of attention to China policy was evident in the first debate among the 10 leading GOP candidates. Most of them did not even mention the country, and those who did clearly adopted a hostile attitude. Donald Trump scorned U.S. leaders for not being better negotiators in their dealings with Beijing. Senator Rand Paul mentioned that China holds an enormous amount of U.S. governmental debt, making it clear that he believed such dependence was unhealthy and a national vulnerability. A few of the other candidates on the stage implied that China was among the “enemies” that supposedly no longer respected the United States because of Barack Obama’s lack of effective leadership.

That behavior has been typical of the campaign thus far. Carly Fiorina, the fastest rising star in the Republican field, has devoted time to discussing China, but Chinese leaders almost certainly do not welcome the attention. Both in the debate and on other occasions, Fiorina has taken an extremely confrontational stance regarding such issues as the South China Sea territorial disputes and cyber security. In an interview with CBS News, she recommended that the United States increase its flyover aerial surveillance of the South China Sea. And it is clear that she has no sympathy for Beijing’s territorial claims. “We cannot permit China to control a trade route through which passes $5 trillion worth of goods and services every year,” she stated bluntly.

Campaign posturing, even if not meant seriously, creates needless suspicions and resentment in U.S.-China relations.

Fiorina was mild on the South China Sea controversy compared to her stance regarding recent cyber attacks—which she blithely assumed originated in China. She contended that such attacks were an act of aggression against the United States, implying that an especially stern, confrontational response was warranted.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, another top tier GOP candidate, has likewise adopted a hardline policy toward China. In a July interview with The National Interest, Walker accused Beijing of mounting a “serious challenge to American interests.” He stated that Washington needed to beef-up U.S. military capabilities in East Asia, strengthen its alliances with Beijing’s neighbors, and develop a robust cyber capability “that punishes China for its hacking.” And as if those positions would not be enough to poison the bilateral relationship, Walker stressed that the United States needed to “speak out against the abysmal lack of freedoms in China.”

On the Democratic campaign trail, Hillary Clinton has not said much about policy toward China. But there is little doubt about her attitude. As Secretary of State, Clinton noticeably toughened the U.S. position on the South China Sea issue. It was Clinton who made the speech to ASEAN in 2010 that underscored Washington’s hostility to Beijing’s territorial claims. And she went out of her way on other occasions to emphasize U.S. solidarity with the Philippines regarding its territorial spat with China. Clinton’s few comments on China policy during the current campaign offer no hint of a softening of such positions.

What we are witnessing is a repetition of the usual quadrennial spectacle regarding relations with China. In presidential campaign after presidential campaign, candidates (especially those representing the party not controlling the White House) either neglect the issue or play the role of demagogue. In the 1980 campaign, Ronald Reagan criticized Jimmy Carter’s administration for “abandoning” Taiwan and establishing diplomatic relations with Beijing. Twelve years later, candidates Bill Clinton and Ross Perot vied with each other to accuse President George H. W. Bush of being too soft on China. Repeatedly citing the Tiananmen Square bloodshed, Clinton referred to Chinese leaders as “the butchers of Beijing.” During the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush viewed China as a worrisome “strategic competitor,” rather than an economic partner of the United States.

The good news is that once in office the new presidents continued the responsible, pragmatic policies toward China first developed by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. The inflammatory campaign rhetoric was quickly discarded. That will likely be the case this time as well. The bilateral economic relationship is simply too valuable to jeopardize by imprudent White House actions.

But campaign posturing, even if not meant seriously, creates needless suspicions and resentment in U.S.-China relations. Presidential candidates need to remember that preserving a cordial relationship with China must be a top U.S. foreign policy priority. Bilateral cooperation enables China and the United States to foster global strategic stability and economic prosperity. Conversely, a breakdown of the relationship would lead to unpleasant and possibly catastrophic global consequences. Policy toward China is far too important for candidates either to ignore or demagogue. Unfortunately, the current crop of presidential aspirants seems determined to do one or the other.

Ted Galen Carpenter is a senior fellow for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and is the author of nine books in addition to more than 550 articles and policy studies on international issues.