The Republican Presidential candidates routinely excoriate President Obama, and his dealings with China are no exception. In recent GOP debates, Obama’s would-be successors have jockeyed over who, as President, would come down most forcefully on Beijing. Mitt Romney has worked up the sharpest rhetoric, saying the Chinese are “stealing our jobs” and calling them “cheaters” and “currency manipulators” conducting a trade war against the U.S. Romney has made it known that his administration would take a much harder line on everything from currency issues to intellectual property rights. “We’re going to stand up to China,” he vowed in the Nov. 12 debate in South Carolina.
That kind of talk resonates with voters, especially in a weak economy. But would Romney’s election, or anybody else’s, bring meaningful changes in U.S. policy? Don’t bet on it. Castigating the White House as weak on China—while promising to be much tougher—is a tradition among Presidential aspirants of both parties that stretches back for decades. Rarely do they follow through once in office.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan sharply criticized President Jimmy Carter’s decision to break off diplomatic relations with Taiwan, suggesting he would reestablish ties and sell Taiwan advanced fighter jets. But as President, Reagan declared U.S.-China relations a “strategic imperative” to balance Soviet influence and did not strike a deal for the planes. In 1992, Bill Clinton inveighed against the “butchers of Beijing,” and as President issued an executive order demanding China improve its human-rights record as a condition for most favored nation status. The Chinese didn’t budge. In the face of pressure from the U.S. business community, which feared a trade war, Clinton relented and let the order lapse. He eventually normalized relations with China and helped pave the way for its entry into the World Trade Organization. In 2000, George W. Bush attacked Clinton for treating China as a “strategic partner” rather than a “strategic competitor.” Bush, too, ultimately chose to engage Beijing after the 9/11 attacks rather than heed the wishes of neoconservatives in his Administration who favored confrontation. “In each case, the candidate pursued very different policies than he advocated during the campaign, and in fact pursued policies than were substantially indistinguishable from those of his predecessor,” says Jeffrey Bader, until recently senior director for East Asian affairs at the U.S. National Security Council and now a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Romney and his colleagues have many good reasons to ignore this history. For one thing, China looms in the minds of many unhappy voters, particularly in hard-hit Rust Belt states. “If you ask people who is our major economic competitor, they’ll say China,” says Pete Brodnitz, a Democratic pollster at the Benenson Strategy Group. “There’s a broad sense that we’re losing ground to the Chinese, that we’re sending jobs there, and that they undercut us on price while producing inferior products. That is a source of great frustration.”
As a result, China has growing salience as an electoral issue. In 2010, Democrats successfully cited the damage to the U.S. manufacturing base wrought by free trade with China to win a special congressional election in Pennsylvania, a bright spot in an otherwise lousy year. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee was particularly aggressive, running television ads that featured the sound of a gong to invoke foreign menace. Republicans quickly caught on. “China is a visceral thing,” says John Brabender, a veteran strategist and ad maker from Pittsburgh who is working for another outspoken Republican Presidential hopeful, Rick Santorum. “I don’t recall seeing any ads about Russia lately, but there are plenty of ads about China.”
Of course, there are legitimate grievances to be addressed: manipulation of the yuan; the theft of intellectual property; the pressure put on American companies doing business in China to transfer technology; a September trade deficit of $28 billion. The trouble is that threatening China won’t resolve any of them. As Clinton likes to say, “When was the last time you got tough on your banker?” And U.S. politicians often exaggerate what confrontation might achieve. For instance, China’s allowing the yuan to float would probably redistribute jobs to other Southeast Asian countries, but it would not return them to Pennsylvania or Ohio.
The lesson that new Presidents since Richard Nixon have learned is that China is a more difficult problem than it appears from the safe distance of the campaign trail. That’s why, for all their clamor as candidates, actual Presidents rarely attempt the dramatic changes they campaign on. “If you look at Presidents from Nixon to Obama, you find overwhelming continuity of policy, save for a few years after Tiananmen Square,” says Bader.
Obama in now trying to find the right balance. In 2008 he criticized Bush for attending the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. As President, he adopted a typically measured policy toward China. Campaigning for a second term, he’s recently made a point of tussling with Chinese President Hu Jintao over currency rates at the recent APEC Summit in Hawaii.
The clearest explanation for this behavior comes, oddly enough, from another Republican Presidential candidate: former Utah Governor and Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman. “You can get an applause line by saying that you’re going to go to war with China,” he told Bloomberg Television on Nov. 14. “That you’re going to slap a tariff, without remembering that you’ve got [to work with China on] North Korea. You’ve got to work on Iran sanctions. You’ve got Pakistan. You’ve got global economic rebalancing. You’ve got the South China Sea. You’ve got a host of issues that are all part of the U.S.-China relationship. And a trade war would grind it all to a halt, killing small businesses and exporters in this country.” He regards Romney’s chest-thumping as a “total pander”—a view widely shared in Washington—and cut a commercial (“Trade War”) decrying it.
Huntsman’s grasp of China policy plainly exceeds everybody else’s in the field. But it’s Romney who better grasps the electoral politics. In a campaign that will be fought over the economy, he understands China is as much an issue of domestic economics as foreign policy. Any poll will ratify the significance of that insight: Romney is the front-runner, and Huntsman is languishing in single digits.