Tuesday June 2, 2020


September 14, 2012


As the United States presidential election draws nearer, the candidates’ foreign policy platforms have come under close scrutiny from observers abroad, including China. This week, the Chinese official news agency Xinhua criticized presidential candidate Mitt Romney for “China-bashing”. A week earlier, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s trip to China evoked similarly critical responses from Chinese media. In this news brief, we will look at campaign rhetoric and actions to examine the U.S. presidential candidates’ policies towards China.


Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney came under fire from the Chinese media on Friday for his campaign vows to label China as a “currency manipulator” on his first day in office if elected. Romney has blamed China’s undervaluing the Renminbi for driving American manufacturers and producers out of business and contributing to unemployment in the United States. China’s Xinhua argued in response that the Chinese currency has appreciated over 30 percent against the dollar since China introduced a managed floating exchange rate regime in 2005, and further warned that Romney’s policies could lead to a “catastrophic” trade war if he were to implement them in office. In a number of campaign speeches, Romney has also taken issue with Chinese intellectual property infringement, government subsidies, and other unfair trade practices.

On security, Romney has emphasized throughout his campaign the importance of American military strength and has frequently criticized the Obama administration for cuts in military spending. Romney’s official policy platform on China and East Asia, outlined on his campaign website, argues the need to strengthen alliances and relations with strategic partners in Asia and maintain robust military capabilities in the Pacific in order to discourage China from establishing regional hegemony, which is considered a threat to U.S. interests in the region. While Romney’s official policy states that the objective in maintaining a strong U.S. security presence in the Pacific is “not to build an anti-China coalition”, it nonetheless emphasizes deterrence of potential Chinese coercion in the region. In the policy outlined on his official campaign website, Romney also vows to take a stronger role in addressing human rights issues with China, and in supporting civil society groups working within China to promote democratic reform.

The Asia-Pacific working group in Romney’s foreign policy team is led by Evan Feigenbaum and Aaron L. Friedberg, two scholars who have somewhat divergent views on China. Feigenbaum, who formerly served in several senior State Department positions and is now with the Carnegie Endowment, is considered to be a moderate realist, and has previously played down rhetoric about American competition with China. Friedberg, a former Cheney advisor and currently a professor at Princeton University, is the author of the recent book A Contest for Supremacy: China, America and the Struggle for Mastery of Asia, and is more hawkish towards China. It remains to be seen which of these two influences would win out in the shaping of China policy if Romney were elected to office. So far, while stating that he will still seek to engage China, Romney has outlined a Pacific security policy with a strong theme of deterrence, and has emphasized his willingness to be more assertive in defending U.S. interests in the context of U.S.-China relations.


The Obama administration came into office promising engagement and seeking to build a cooperative relationship with China, but Obama’s position has since strengthened over the course of his four-year term to become increasingly confrontational with Beijing. The “strategic pivot” to Asia announced in 2009, in which the U.S. will rebalance its defense forces towards the Pacific, marked a turning point in the administration’s policy towards the region and relations with China, which widely interprets the pivot as a policy of containment. The Obama administration has also brought a number of complaints against China’s trade practices to the WTO, and has been increasingly vocal on issues of human rights and maritime disputes. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to China last week, likely her last before she retires from her official position, highlighted differences and increasing tensions in bilateral relations between the United States and China. Chinese media sources were particularly critical of Clinton during her visit, blaming her for increasing tensions over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. In campaign rhetoric Obama has responded to Republican criticism by asserting that he will continue to “stand up to China” and challenge unfair trade practices.

In fact, despite the candidates’ efforts to draw a sharp contrast between their policies, the substance of the two candidate’s positions on China is not drastically different. Romney’s call for a U.S. military buildup in the Pacific echoes the Obama administration’s strategic pivot to Asia. While Obama does not go so far as to label China a currency manipulator, both he and Romney vow to hold China accountable for unfair trade practices. As Friday’s Xinhua editorial pointed out, “China-bashing” is a common theme in electoral politics. The candidate’s statements about China—and the critical Chinese response to both sides—show that Romney and Obama have largely converged in their China policy, reacting to the pressure to come down hard on Beijing both from their rival camp and from voters who view China as an economic threat.

However, campaign rhetoric and actual government policy often diverge. In the past, presidents such as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have had to retreat from campaign promises of a hard line on China once in office in order to manage what is one of the world’s most consequential bilateral relationships. U.S. policy on China requires a careful balancing act between advocacy of U.S. interests and values where they diverge from China’s, and promotion of a cooperative bilateral relationship that is essential for addressing a number of shared interests and challenges. Regardless of which candidate will be in office next January, managing the U.S.-China relationship will be among the top priorities for the administration and will demand a carefully thought-out policy.



Written by Amanda Watson.