American presidential elections turn chiefly on domestic issues, not foreign policy, and within that category China for years played only a bit part. In 1952 Dwight D. Eisenhower attacked the incumbent Democrats for the loss of China to communism and their failure to end the war in Korea. In 1960 Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy clashed in their televised debates over the defence of Quemoy and Matsu, with Nixon arguing that the US should defend the islands if attacked and Kennedy saying they were not covered by the USROC defence treaty. In 1980, Ronald Reagan criticised the incumbent president, Jimmy Carter, for abruptly terminating diplomatic and defence ties with Taiwan and promised to treat the Taiwanese more respectfully if elected. But it is doubtful that these issues affected the elections’ outcomes.

Americans began to pay more attention to China when Deng Xiaoping opened the country to the West in the late 1970s. But China was not a political issue so long as Americans perceived Deng to be leading his country toward capitalism and democracy. The honeymoon ended in 1989 with the violent repression of pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. In the next presidential campaign, which took place in 1992, candidate Bill Clinton attacked the incumbent, George H.W. Bush, for doing business with the “butchers of Beijing” and “coddling dictators”. His attacks marked the beginning of a pattern that has recurred frequently since: because the incumbent administration has had to deal with Beijing on a host of practical issues, it is attacked by the party out of power for being soft on China.

The 1992 campaign also marked the appearance of another perennial theme, the charge that the incumbent administration is “shipping [jobs] to China,” as third-party candidate Ross Perot put it that year. The image of China as a mercantilist cheater grew more sharply defined after 2000, when its trade surplus with the US replaced that of Japan as number one. In the 2004 campaign, candidate John Kerry accused President George W. Bush of failing to take on the Chinese over currency manipulation.

By 2008 China had come fully into its own as an economic bête noir. The candidates in both major party primaries and in the general election referred repeatedly to “the half a trillion dollars we owe China,” as John McCain put it (the estimated size at that time of Chinese holdings of US treasury bonds—also referred to in political debates as 500 billion, 700 billion, or a trillion). This big number condensed many worries into one symbol: anxieties about US selfindulgence in running a large budget deficit, about a perceived decline in economic competitiveness, about Chinese cheating in the world marketplace, and about a feared shift in global power.

The candidates in the 2008 Democratic primary campaign voiced these concerns in one of their debates. Barack Obama asserted, “[W]e’ve got to have a president in the White House who’s negotiating to make sure that we’re looking after American workers. That means enforcing our trade agreements; it means that if they’re manipulating their currency, that we take them to the mat on that issue; it means that we are also not running up deficits and asking China to bail us out and finance them, because it’s pretty hard to have a tough negotiation when the Chinese are our bankers. (Cheers, applause).”

Senator Joe Biden agreed: “The fact of the matter is … they hold the mortgage on our house. (Crowd reacts.) This administration, in order to fund a war that shouldn’t be being fought and tax cuts that weren’t needed for the wealthy—we’re now in debt almost a trillion dollars—a trillion dollars to China. We better end that war, cut those taxes, reduce the deficit and make sure that they no longer own the mortgage on our home.”

Senator Hillary Clinton joined in: “I want to say amen to Joe Biden, because he’s 100 per cent right … We’ve got to get back to fiscal responsibility in order to undercut the Chinese power over us because of the debt we hold. We also have to deal with their currency manipulation. We have to have tougher standards on what they import into this country. I do not want to eat bad food from China or have my children having toys that are going to get them sick. So let’s be tougher on China going forward. (Cheers, applause.)”

The same themes were vetted in the Republican primary campaign. In the general election the Republican candidate, John McCain, did not bother to defend the policies of the unpopular incumbent Republican, George W. Bush. Instead, both McCain and Democratic candidate Obama competed to state more forcefully than the other the need to rein in the deficit, increase America’s competitiveness, and make the Chinese stop cheating.

So far in the 2012 campaign, China has continued to play its established role as a symbol of America’s anxiety about itself. Since the expected Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, has not yet started his formal campaign, China has so far come into explicit electoral play only in the Republican primary campaign. The leading contender, Mitt Romney, has spoken about China perhaps more often and with greater toughness than any previous candidate in a presidential election. The Chinese threat is the natural counterpoint to his central theme that he is the kind of businessman and “job creator” who can fix what’s wrong with the US.

Romney’s remarks on China have focused on currency manipulation, intellectual property rights, counterfeit goods, and jobs. He set the tone by saying that on his first day in office he would “brand China a currency manipulator”. He wrote a Wall Street Journal opinion piece entitled “How I’ll Respond to China’s Rising Power”, in which he said, “President Obama came into office as a near supplicant to Beijing, almost begging it to continue buying American debt so as to finance his profligate spending here at home. His administration demurred from raising issues of human rights for fear it would compromise agreement on the global economic crisis or even ‘the global climate-change crisis’. Such weakness has only encouraged Chinese assertiveness and made our allies question our staying power in East Asia.”

The other Republican candidates have said less about China, but like Romney have used it as an emblem of the decline of American competitiveness. In addition, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have mentioned China’s human rights violations; Gingrich has advocated using dialogue to promote a Chinese transition to democracy; and Santorum has spoken of a gathering threat to US security from a variety of international forces that include China. While he was still in the campaign, Jon Huntsman damaged his candidacy by arguing that the US should avoid a trade war with China. He was explicitly criticised by Romney for having served as ambassador to China. The valence of the China symbol is firmly negative.


THE 2008 Democratic primary candidates are now managing American China policy in their roles as president, vice president, and secretary of state. They have to explain to the electorate why China has not yielded promptly or fully to American demands. Although President Obama will remain officially in incumbent mode rather than campaign mode until the Democratic convention in September, he has already been rebutting criticism on China policy from the Republican candidates. In his 2012 State of the Union address, he announced the creation of a new enforcement unit to investigate “unfair trade practices in countries like China.” More technically and harder for the public to understand, he pointed out that his administration has lodged a larger number of World Trade Organisation complaints against China than the previous administration and has often won. Stumping to sell the success of his economic recovery policies, Obama has celebrated firms that succeeded in what he calls “insourcing” jobs that had previously been outsourced to China.

Also useful in Obama’s upcoming campaign will be the strategic pivot to Asia that he announced in late 2011, which involves a more active diplomacy in the region, promotion of the Trans Pacific Partnership to enhance trade, beefed up US military deployments in the Pacific Command despite a planned reduction in the rate of growth of overall defence spending, and strengthened military cooperation with Australia and other regional partners. The pivot is more symbol than substance, since the US posture in Asia has remained strong throughout his administration, and American military capabilities there have been continuously upgraded. Washington has denied that the pivot—whether rhetoric or reality—is directed against Beijing. Yet it stands ready for use as a campaign tool if needed to shield the President from charges of weakness toward China.

Despite these efforts, any president who has managed US-China relations for four years remains vulnerable to criticism on many fronts. Obama’s treasury secretary has refused to label China a currency manipulator: the excuse that the yuan has been steadily appreciating will hardly work in the heat of an election campaign. Obama did not bring China to heel on diplomatic issues like North Korea, Iran, Sudan, and Syria: to say that Beijing gave quiet, partial cooperation behind the scenes will not get applause lines at political rallies. American evangelicals are concerned about the erosion of religious freedom and the use of abortions in China; the human rights and labour movements believe that the President has not done enough to defend Chinese dissidents and workers. Although the President has publicly voiced his concerns about these issues to Chinese leaders, he cannot claim that they have heeded his pleas. 

But these issues—and others involving China like Taiwan and climate change—are unlikely to get much air time during the campaign, partly because they are too complicated, partly because there is not much real disagreement among mainstream strategists in the two parties over how to treat them, and above all because American campaigns focus on domestic issues unless the public’s attention is seized by a losing war. The US has already withdrawn from Iraq, is on the way out of Afghanistan, and China is not involved in either of these conflicts.


ONCE the 2012 election is over, US China policy is likely to remain on much the same track it has been on since the Nixon presidency: cooperation in the economic rise of China through the provision of capital, technology, education, and access to US markets, combined with efforts to bring China into compliance with global norms, jawboning on human rights, and maintenance of a sturdy defence posture in Asia—in short, engagement. Even if the Republican candidate wins and tries to push China harder on economic issues, he will encounter firm pushback from a new Chinese leadership headed, if current expectations are fulfilled, by a self-confident and assertive Xi Jinping. After a year or so the usual tropism will assert itself, by which a new president reverts to the norm on China policy. That dynamic was visible when Reagan defeated Carter and tried to recalibrate Taiwan policy, when Clinton defeated Bush I and tried to assert a stronger human rights policy, and when Obama defeated Bush II and tried to establish a more cooperative relationship with China. In all cases the new policy proved to be less workable than the old one.

The next president, of whichever party, will continue to press China for greater compliance with international economic norms. Where China has signed and violated economic commitments—as in many of the intellectual property rights provisions of its WTO accession agreement—the path of American policy is reasonably straightforward, although not necessarily short. Where the rules themselves are unclear or up for grabs—as with the international currency system, where China has not broken any norms—American policy cannot be as forceful as political rhetoric would like to pretend. A Republican president may handle economic relations even more gingerly than a Democratic president, since the Republicans lean more on Wall Street and less on the labour movement than the Democrats.

Likewise, the next president will maintain the American strategic position in Asia. No major candidate has suggested any other course since Jimmy Carter’s ill-considered and quickly abandoned proposal during the 1976 campaign to withdraw American troops from Korea. But the future administration will have no means to stop China from building up its own military strength. There was a time when the George W. Bush administration, in its National Security Strategy of the United States published in 2002, proposed to maintain military “forces [that] will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States.” But with respect to China that strategy has failed. The task for future presidents will be to avoid military miscalculation or miscommunication, while finding and maintaining a balance that fulfills core Chinese security needs and also protects those of the US and its partners.

No president of either party is likely to give up publicly promoting human rights in China. The Obama administration has been more vocal on this issue than most previous administrations. Besides frequent public statements by the President and other top officials, the State Department has funded new programs to support internet freedom and women’s rights. A Republican administration might do less, or it might shift attention to issues more important to its ideological base like religious freedom and the right to life. But the idea that any administration, Republican or Democrat, will bring freedom to China on its own is a fantasy. 

US policy on Taiwan—favouring peaceful resolution of the issue—is unlikely to change, as is its policy on Tibet—recognising the region as part of China but advocating respect for human rights.

In short, so long as China itself does not change its trajectory of growth and self-strengthening, the US has no fresh strategic options. It can neither abandon its extensive position in Asia, nor stop China’s rise. After the political season ends, the US administration will continue to deal with China in practical ways.

In the longer run, to be sure, change is a constant in world politics. China’s rise may stall; the US may really decline—so far the US decline has been more a bad dream than a reality—or disorder may break out on China’s periphery or somewhere new in the ambit of American power. These events could cause changes in US-China relations. But change is not likely to come from the 2012 election.