Tuesday June 2, 2020


October 25, 2012

This year, China has played an unusually large role in America’s presidential campaign. Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have used China as a talking point in their speeches and political ads. Most of their rhetoric on China is tied closely to America’s economic problems. Romney has accused Obama of not doing enough to crack down on China’s “cheating”, which he claims has cost America jobs. Obama has defended his policies by pointing to World Trade Organization cases and tariffs his administration has implemented to “level the playing field” against Chinese companies.

While accusations against China have been more frequent in this election than in years past, few of either candidate’s remarks actually reflect clear-cut strategies for dealing with China. Even when candidates make specific remarks about their plans, they focus almost exclusively on the economic realm, as with Romney’s famous promise to label China a currency manipulator “on Day One” of his presidency. The campaigns have largely been silent on many other issues that are integral parts of the U.S.-China relationship, including whether to continue the American “pivot” or “rebalancing” to Asia; how to work with China on global issues such as proliferation and climate change; or how to improve the often-tense relationship between America and China’s military leaders. Such issues are rarely mentioned in campaign discussions. Even the recent foreign policy-themed debate between Obama and Romney spent little time talking substantially about China-related issues, and most of the brief segment on China segment on economic concerns.

To help clarify the candidates’ positions on China policy, the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and the Committee of 100 co-sponsored a recent “China Policy Debate” between representatives of the two campaigns. Jeffrey Bader, a member of the National Security Advisory Committee of President Obama’s Re-election Campaign, represented the Obama campaign. Aaron Friedberg, the Co-Chair of Mitt Romney’s Asia-Pacific Working Group, represented the Romney campaign. Through the remarks of these two speakers, those interested in a more detailed picture of China policy can glean information on how a second Obama term or a Romney presidency would engage China. While it is important to remember the views summarized below come from representatives, and not the candidates themselves, they do represent the views of important advisers to Romney and Obama. As such, these views will likely be influential in shaping future policy.


On the “pivot” to Asia:


Friedberg called the increased emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region “prudent”, which suggests that Romney would likely continue to focus more time and attention on the region. However, Friedberg also expressed concerns that the policy might be “under-resourced.” Bader argued in favor of the pivot, calling it “demands-driven” based on requests from other countries in the region. Bader also took care to point out that the “pivot” was not just military, but economic and diplomatic as well. These efforts would likely continue under a second Obama term, perhaps with more focus on the non-military aspects Bader emphasized.


On territory disputes in the South China Sea

Both Bader and Friedberg support the U.S.’s neutral position towards the competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. This policy is unlikely to change. Both men also framed the issue as what Bader called a test of China’s rise, meaning that the way China handles these disputes will be seen by both Obama’s and Romney’s advisers as an important bellwether for China’s intentions. If China uses its new influence and military strength to aggressively press its claims at the expense of its weaker neighbors, both Friedberg and Bader would take this as a warning sign for the future. In framing the U.S.’s role in the region, Friedberg said that the U.S. must avoid being drawn into a conflict, but that America is the only country with the strength “to stand up to China” and thus has a responsibility to help mediate the conflict. Bader emphasized the importance of an “approach of principle” based on international standards to mediate the conflict, suggesting that this would avoid the perception that America is “taking sides.”


On Taiwan and cross-strait relations

Taiwan and cross-straits relations was another area of partial agreement. Both Bader and Friedberg noted the positive state of the current relationship between China and Taiwan, and both men also expressed their support for continuing American arms sales to Taiwan. Friedberg briefly mentioned that Romney would consider selling advanced F-16C/D fighter jets (long a controversial issue) to Taiwan, because the Taiwan government has requested them. However, there were differences. Bader mostly emphasized and expressed support for the current, positive cross-strait relationship, while Friedberg took a more long-term, and less optimistic view. Friedberg argued that in the long term China can’t “get what it wants” from Taiwan, and that as a result there is no guarantee that the smooth cross-strait relationship will continue.


On China’s “unfair” trade practices


As in the larger campaign, some of the most spirited comments came on economic issues in the U.S.-China relationship. When asked about the assertions by both campaigns that China uses “unfair” tactics to artificially boost its economy, both Bader and Friedberg stood by the claim, citing government subsidies to Chinese firms, an undervalued currency, intellectual property violations, and market access restrictions as major concerns. Bader said that the current economic relationship was “not a level playing field” and outlined some of the Obama administration’s steps to address these issues. He argued in favor of using the World Trade Organization, multilateral efforts, and unilateral trade remedies (including tariffs) that are allowed under U.S. law to counter-balance China’s “unfair” practices. Friedberg agreed that China gives an unfair advantage to its companies, but called the Obama administration’s efforts on the issue “too little, too late.” He noted the recent uptick in WTO cases and suggested that Obama’s newly toughened stance on trade issues sent a message that his administration was not serious, but merely “playing politics.” He supported using many of the same tactics Bader mentioned, but argued that they must be used more consistently and firmly.


On labeling China a “currency manipulator”


One of the most controversial proclamations about China this year has been Romney’s promise to label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office. During the debate, Bader predicted that such an action would be “highly disruptive” and thus demonstrated “upside-down priorities” because it would jeopardize the entire relationship over a single issue. “China will retaliate. This I can guarantee,” he warned. Friedberg defended Romney’s controversial promise, arguing that the move was warranted due to China’s use of undervalued currency to “unfairly” advantage its companies. Friedberg said that the currency manipulator label was “not a big red button,” but instead a move designed to spark serious negotiation over the issue. Such a move, he said, would “put China on notice” but not start a trade war. Friedberg also argued that fear of a trade war had “paralyzed” previous administrations and kept them from taking necessary action to protect American interests.


On intellectual property (IP) violations in China


Both representatives agreed that intellectual property violations and IP theft in China were serious problems. Bader called China a “problematic actor” in IP theft and cyber espionage, but also pointed out that this has been a “massive problem” with almost every rising Asian country during the last 40 years. He cited progress made on the issue under Obama, including an agreement where the Chinese government pays to replaced pirated software with genuine software in state-owned enterprises. Friedberg rejected Bader’s claim that China’s IP violations were analogous to previous historical examples, saying the problem was “of a different order of magnitude” in China. He argued that America must take firm action to combat the problem. Friedberg suggested that a Romney administration might seek to form a coalition of IP-rich countries that could refuse to export products in key sectors as long as their IP was at risk.


On human rights


Bader and Friedberg were in general agreement on three key points regarding China and human rights. First, human rights in China have improved substantially over the last 30 years. Second, China still doesn’t adequately protect what America views as universal rights. Third, the U.S. cannot make China improve its human rights record; change must come from within. From within this general framework, Friedberg argued that the Obama administration had not been consistent on the issue, and had sent signals (especially early on) that they were overly accommodating of human rights violations. Friedberg favored speaking up publicly on behalf of Chinese protesters and dissidents who faced human rights violations. He also emphasized the need to support the growth of civil society and NGOs in China. Bader defended Obama’s human rights record, using the successful resolution of the Chen Guangcheng case as a prime example. He contrasted the Obama administration’s handling of the incident with Romney’s criticisms of their actions, calling Romney’s statements “clumsy” and “irresponsible.” Bader said Obama officials always raise human rights issues in meeting with Chinese leaders, and would continue to do so. He also suggested that America should support future leader Xi Jinping’s efforts at political and economic reform in order to help ensure greater human rights for Chinese citizens. “Progress is possible,” he said, but America must be patient. Friedberg, however, argued that there was little official movement towards true political reform in China, and that recent history suggested there would be no rapid opening up of the political system.



Overall, both men agreed on the desire for a peaceful, prosperous Asia-Pacific region, and the need for a positive U.S.-China relationship to maintain that peace and prosperity. They also shared agreement on many of the strategies for dealing with issues in the U.S.-China relationship: using multilateral sanctions to discourage nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran; using the WTO and U.S. unilateral action to “level the playing field” economically; continuing a strong U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific. Friedberg claimed that a Romney presidency would be more consistent and effective in enforcing these policies, but the policies themselves were accepted by both Bader and Friedberg.

Ultimately, the largest differences were apparent in their long-term views of China. Friedberg seemed less optimistic towards long-term issues such as the cross-strait relationship, human rights and political reform in China, and the South China Sea. This led him to emphasize the need for a strong American presence to balance against “uncertainties” about China’s future path. According to his view, the Obama administration has not found the right mix of cooperation (engaging with China) and balancing (hedging against the possibility of negative Chinese action). Bader seemed to promote a more optimistic view of China’s future, especially on issues like IP theft and the potential for political reform. Thus while Bader also advocated for a certain amount of “balancing”, especially forging strong relationships between America and other regional players, he felt policies outlined by Friedberg or Romney might be overly aggressive or provocative. In a U.S.-China relationship often defined by continuity instead of change, these differing perspectives, rather than differing policies, may be the most substantial contrast between the candidates on China policy.

To view the 2012 China Policy Debate in its entirety, click here.


Written by Shannon Tiezzi.