Tough talk on China is expected to resurface in the third and final debate between US President Barack Obama and his challenger Mitt Romney in Boca Raton, Florida. But many experts say both candidates have missed the mark in their critique of the world’s fastest growing economy.
Fresh assessment of the candidates’ competing China policies has come about after the Chicago Council on Global Affairs released a report showing that the majority of Americans support “a policy of friendly engagement and co-operation with China”.
The rise of China is one of the six foreign policy issues that will be discussed during Monday night’s match-up at Flynn University, according to the US Commission on Presidential Debates.
The Chicago study provided to Al Jazeera shows that 54 per cent of Democrats consider China a partner, while 51 per cent of Republicans and 53 per cent of independents “see China as a rival”. Almost half of the Republican respondents also say they are “worried” that China’s economy will grow as large as that of the US.
Obama and Romney are largely focused on issues such as currency manipulation, intellectual property theft and outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, as they try to outdo each other on China before the American electorate.
During the second presidential debate last week, Obama touted his action to place “unprecedented trade pressure on China” to appreciate further the Chinese currency, which he said had already increased American exports and created more jobs in the US.
Romney promised to be even tougher: “On day one, I will label China a currency manipulator, which will allow me as president to be able to place, if necessary, tariffs where I believe that they are taking unfair advantage of our manufacturers,” Romney said.
In response, Chinese news agency Xinhua warned that China could “be forced to fight back” and engage in a “global trade war”.
‘Red meat’ issues
But beyond the “red meat” issues that only invite conflict, Obama and Romney can demonstrate leadership in their last debate, by talking about how the US could co-operate with China on climate change, humanitarian relief and even cyber terrorism, says Mike Kulma, a China expert at the Asia Society in New York.
“For peace, security and stability to exist in the international system on many different fronts, these two countries need to figure out how to work together,” Kulma told Al Jazeera, pointing out that China will undergo a similar leadership transition starting on November 8, just two days after the US elections.
Kenneth Pomeranz, a University of Chicago professor, said the issues Kulma laid out, which have not been discussed in the campaign trail, may have more important implications in the long run than those currently being debated. And on top of that list is the task of building a framework for a US-China agreement on global warming, which neither candidate has been willing to address, he says.
Pomeranz, who has authored several books about China, urged Obama and Romney to be more forward-looking on China, rather than getting caught up on “things that have more electoral oomph in the short run”.
“This is the most important bilateral relationship in the world,” Pomeranz says. “It needs to be managed for the long term.”
Both Kulma and Pomeranz, however, agree that the Chinese leadership may have already grown accustomed to the customary China-bashing that American politicians indulge in during presidential elections.
“An increasing number of people have a reasonably sophisticated view of what’s going on in the West and the way American politics work,” Pomeranz told Al Jazeera. “I suspect most of those people recognise this as election year jockeying.”
The debate between Obama and Romney might produce some angry statements from China, as has already happened, but it is unlikely to make all that much impact within China, Pomeranz added.
China’s understanding of the complexity of the American political system has allowed its leadership to take a “nuanced view” of the electoral process, adds Kulma. He said he expects a pragmatic approach from China in dealing with the post-election period.
Chest-thumping by the Obama and Romney campaigns may not be even necessary, Kulma says.
“I think the conversations that are had don’t necessarily reflect the reality of the situation once either a new president comes into office or the incumbent wins and continues to have that kind of relationship with China.”
‘Not an empty threat’
William Yu of the UCLA Anderson Forecast says that he does not think the threats are simply election rhetoric. He expects Romney to follow through on his promise and declare China a “currency manipulator” on his first day in office, should he be elected president.
“It is very reasonable to hear what they say, because if you look at the data, the United States’ trade deficit with China is about $300bn a year,” Yu told Al Jazeera, adding that the only way to extract economic concessions from China is to talk tough.
The US trade deficit with China represents about two per cent of its annual income. Yu says if China could be convinced to open its market to more American exports in the amount equal to the current trade deficit, the US economy would grow by two per cent, and more jobs would be created.
At present, the trade deficit with China accounts for 41 per cent of the total US trade deficit.
While the possibility of a trade war exists, Yu does not think China would retaliate “because China needs much more from the United States than United States need from China”.
“Remember that China right now accounts for seven per cent of US exports,” Yu explains. “But the United States accounts for 21 per cent of China’s exports, so you see this kind of trade dependence.”
Yu describes as “slow” but “significant” President Obama’s decision to take its trade dispute with China to the World Trade Organization.
“In terms of the trade deficit issue, and jobs issue … Romney’s policy would be more effective,” the Taiwanese-trained economist says. “If you keep a trade deficit with [the US], eventually we don’t have any money to buy products from you,” Yu concludes.
Yet Pomeranz says Romney’s tough talk on China is misguided, adding that the Republican candidate “has not articulated what his discontent is with what the Obama administration has achieved”.
If Romney is going to promise “to be a whole lot tougher” than Obama, and then he wins, he could find himself in a position where he has to choose between backing down from some of those promises and governing irresponsibly, Pomeranz argues.
“I’m not at all sure what Governor Romney can say that he wants to do, that would actually be constructive and would be that different from what Obama has done,” he told Al Jazeera.
Pomeranz points out that the Obama administration “has been fairly pushy” on China matters.
“The renminbi has gone from being probably 30 to 40 per cent undervalued – to the latest estimates I think at 11 [per cent]. That’s pretty significant progress for the Obama administration,” Pomeranz says.
Overall, China observers agree that a policy of pragmatism – rather than election season bluster – is more constructive for both the US and China.