BY WILLA FREJ:
While many would argue that the 2012 Presidential Election is all about the economy, China is undoubtedly center stage in the foreign policy debate. China’s rise is both an opportunity and a threat for the United States, but some candidates have grown overly comfortable using China bashing as a means to win more votes.
President Obama, who has been viewed as cooperative towards China throughout his term, has begun taking a tougher stance, encapsulated in the American “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region. Though this has been officially characterized as a mere rebalancing effort, it is difficult to believe that overt military positioning doesn’t arouse suspicions among Americans (and among Chinese, for that matter). Many have described his policies as a mixture of balancing and hedging, demonstrating military might while also welcoming China’s rise peacefully. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for her part, has stressed the importance of bilateral ties. This is juxtaposed with contender Mitt Romney’s hawkish rhetoric on China; he has consistently claimed that if elected, he will declare China a “currency manipulator” on day one.
American complaints about China rose to prominence in 2010 and have included the outsourcing of jobs to China, an undervaluing of the Yuan, and unfair trade practices. President Obama has consistently decried China’s illegal maneuvers and claims to have improved accountability. On the other hand, some fear that Romney, if elected, is in danger of instigating a trade war, which many consider ironic given that he has known business partnerships in China.
China attack ads primarily target the jobs issue as a way to deflect attention from internal problems relating to employment. This past week, for example, the GOP released an ad scrutinizing Jeep for purportedly moving its production operations to China. The CEO of Chrysler was forced to denounce this falsification, but research has shown that such ads displaying false information are likely to stay on air.
What is the significance of this China bashing? At this stage, it is difficult to predict how much of this aggressiveness is cheap talk versus how much will actually translate into policy. Yet politicians are expected to be accountable for what they say on the campaign trail, and given Romney’s consistently pejorative attitude and threats, he is not in a position to back down.
China therefore seems to have become the United States’ scapegoat, an easy target ripe for the picking. The reality is that a vicious cycle has been formed, one in which politicians take a tough stance on China in order to appeal to their people, and the people subsequently buy into the anti-China one-liners. There are statistics to confirm this: though 55% of Americans hold a favorable view of China, 49 percent of US voters want their leadership to take a tougher stance on China, an increase of 9 percent from March 2011. But does the American public even understand what the term “currency manipulator” means? Are these candidates truly in touch with their voters when it comes to China?
This unprecedented level of China bashing may back the US into a very narrow corner. If we limit our flexibility on Chinese policy, we may construct a point of no return for anti-Chinese sentiment in the US, something that risks becoming embedded in the American psyche. While politically expedient, this type of fear mongering is indeed very disturbing. If politicians truly are influencers of public opinion and vice versa, it is in everyone’s best interest to see the next President of the United States not throw all of his sticks out onto the table.
Willa Frej ’13 is in Pierson College. She writes about China’s foreign policy as she works on her senior essay discussing the topic. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.