The 2012 presidential election year in the United Sates has arrived and already Sino-U.S. relations have become a constant topic in the Republican presidential primaries. All Republican presidential hopefuls have vied with each other in being "tough" on China. For example, during Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping's visit to the United States, the Republican front-runner Governor Mitt Romney breached diplomatic etiquette with a series of tough talk about adopting a hardline approach in dealing with China. He has repeatedly accused China of "stealing" American jobs and intellectual property. He promises that if he gets elected, he will issue an executive order identifying China as a currency manipulator. It seems the China-bashing game has become one of the centerpieces of Governor Romney's presidential campaign. The other Republican presidential hopefuls also have criticized the Obama Administration's China policy and called for a rigidly uncompromising approach in handling Sino-U.S. relations.
Challenged by his Republican opponents' China-bashing game, President Barack Obama has responded swiftly. On the one hand, his campaign has accused Governor Romney of flip-flopping on the China issue; on the other hand, he has joined the China-bashing game by toughening his own tone on Chinese trade and currency issues. Recently, many high-level government officials in his administration, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, made some unusually frank speeches and commentaries on China. As the Republican primaries become increasingly more competitive and the general elections draw near, the China-bashing game will only become an increasingly popular tactic for the political campaigns of both parties in the United States. The growing prominence of a China policy in American politics can be attributed to several causes.
There is a widespread sentiment of "China fear" in Western countries, especially in the United States. Some recent public opinion polls show that half of the American people have unfavorable opinions of China. Americans have mixed feelings about China's rapid economic development. While many American admire China's economic achievements, some worry about economic competition from China. America' economy has been in deep recession during the last four years. The unemployment rate in the United States has remained very high at 8 persent, and at some points above 10 persent. Many American families are struggling, and they are dependent on government assistance for daily housing, food and health care. Many Americans have lost their homes, investments, pensions and retirement savings during the economic crisis. It is understandable that many feel frustrated and even angry about this distressing economic downturn.
Unfortunately, some American politicians have blamed China in order to protect themselves. Many political candidates are willing to use the China-bashing game to attack their opponents in competitive elections. After all, beating up on China is a safe way for candidates to score political points. American political campaigns and elections are very much like a poker game with multiple players trying to make the best of whatever is in their hands. The tough talk on China may not crush your opponents, but it is definitely the safest play you can make. There is just no political benefit in chastising one for being tough on China.
In addition to the fact that there is growing uneasiness about the rise of China among American political elites, the China-bashing game is actually a long-time tradition in American presidential elections, especially in all such elections since the end of the Cold War. President Bill Clinton, President George W. Bush, and President Barack Obama attacked their predecessor's China policies and accused them of kowtowing to China. They promised that they would get tough on China after they got elected. Fortunately, advancing cooperation has always been the order during the last two decades. Both the Chinese and the American governments have made continuous efforts to institutionalize bilateral relations during the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations. The development and maturity of Sino-U.S. relations are evident in the countries' interdependence.
It is also important to point out that political candidates' tough talk on China will not have much impact on American voters. Traditionally, many Americans are not interested in foreign policy issues because of their lack of knowledge of foreign affairs and their perception that foreign policy has no particular relevance to their lives. Therefore, foreign policy issues have always carried much less weight in American voters' decision-making. Most American voters focus on domestic issues. For example, employment, tax, public education, gas prices as well as some social issues like gun violence, gay marriage and abortion, are the most important issues for American voters. Although Sino-U.S. relations are the most important bilateral relationship, American voters will not cast their votes on the basis of those candidates' China policies.
Furthermore, America and China are two different countries. They have different political systems, economic systems, cultures, and world views. It is normal for some Americans to be prejudiced against or have biased opinions of China. Fortunately, we are in the 21st century. The world has grown smaller and its people have become almost one community. Americans people and the Chinese have many opportunities to communicate with each other and understand each other. More importantly, these two countries have become increasingly dependent on each other. There are so many common interests between the two countries.
Most of the current political rhetoric and tough talk on China will disappear as soon as the 2012 presidential election is decided. American politicians understand that the United States must put aside differences and cooperate with China. A Sino-U.S. relationship based on mutual respect and mutual trust will not only bring more economic opportunities for both countries, but also make good contributions to world peace and prosperity. We can safely assume that after the 2012 presidential election, the new administration in Washington will deal with China in a pragmatic manner, and the American media will reconstitute rhetoric and reality by paying more attention to mutual cooperation and compromise instead of mutual competition and confrontation.
Ding Sheng is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Dragon's Hidden Wings: How China Rises with Its Soft Power (2008). His research articles have appeared in Pacific Affairs, Journal of Contemporary China, Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, Journal of Asian and African Studies, East Asia, Journal of Chinese Political Science, and Journal of Information Technology and Politics.