US presidential candidates have a history of saying one thing about China on the campaign trail only to change their tune when they reach the Oval Office.The US-China commercial relationship has taken center stage early in the 2012 campaign season. During late February and early March, the Republican presidential candidates focused much of their political rhetoric on US-China relations, claiming China cheats on trade policy, steals technology from American companies, and keeps the value of its currency artificially low. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama announced plans to investigate and counter unfair trade practices by countries like China. Instead of highlighting the expansion of US exports to China, which again hit a record high in 2011, the focus this election season has been on getting back at China.

China on and off the campaign trail

This aggressive campaign talk has been seen before by the American electorate only to be reversed once the Oval Office is won. In 1980, then Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan advocated for a cooling of relations with the government in Beijing and stressed that America should do more to support the pro-democracy government of Taiwan. Four years later, Reagan visited China and held talks on important bilateral issues, and the following year PRC President Li Xiannian made the first visit to the United States by a Chinese head of state.

In 1992, Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton said President George H.W. Bush “coddled” the PRC government, which Clinton also called the “butchers of Beijing” on the campaign trail. Once in office Clinton was much more engaged and conciliatory with China. In 1993, PRC President Jiang Zemin met with Clinton during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit meeting in Seattle, the first formal meeting between leaders of the two countries since February 1989. Subsequently, Jiang made a state visit to the United States in 1997 where a joint communique was released that called for a constructive strategic partnership. In his final year in office, Clinton signed the landmark US-China trade bill that normalized trade relations between the countries and paved the way for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization.

In 2000, Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush told CNN’s Larry King that “the president has called the relationship with China a strategic partnership. I believe our relationship needs to be redefined as competitor.” However, after the 9/11 attacks the relationship once again became a partnership. China publically supported Bush on the global war on terror and UN resolutions. PRC President Hu Jintao visited the United States in 2006, and Bush attended the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

Americans’ views on China

This year’s campaign rhetoric on China is not entirely in line with Americans’ views of China. Recent polling shows that Americans generally support strong US-China relations and want more cooperation between the world’s two largest economies. In a survey released in February by Gallup and China Daily USA, 71 percent of Americans said a strong US-China relationship is important.

“Americans tend to have a positive view of China,” says Richard Wike, associate director at the Pew Global Attitudes Project. In the spring 2011 Pew Global Attitudes survey, 51 percent of respondents expressed a favorable opinion of China. But various opinions emerge among different segments of the population. Notably, Republicans and older Americans tend to have more negative views of China.

Even though Americans have a fairly positive view of China, they also see China as a threat. In a January 2011 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 22 percent saw China as the country posing the greatest danger to the United States, second only to Iran at 28 percent.

“One thing that has changed since 2008 is that Americans increasingly see the balance of power shifting between the US and China,” Wike says. “In 2008, 46 percent of Americans said the US was the world’s leading economic power. Only 26 percent named China. By 2011, 43 percent said China was the world’s economic leader, while just 38 percent named the US.”

Pew’s research also shows that Americans increasingly believe China will supplant the United States as the dominant global superpower. In 2008, 54 percent said China would never replace the United States as the world’s leading superpower, while 36 percent thought it either already had or would eventually. By 2011, opinions were almost evenly split: 45 percent said China will never replace the United States, and 46 percent said it already has or will take America’s place as the leading superpower.

“Clearly, American attitudes toward China are shaped in part by the anxieties Americans feel about their own country, its place in the world, and the economic challenges the US has faced over the last few years,” Wike says.

For some Americans, feelings and attitudes about China may be personal, says Derek Scissors, Asia economist at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “There are many people who believe they have been or could be harmed economically by China,” he says. “They’re not necessarily right, but that is often the first thought.”

Another contributing issue is the growing federal deficit, says Adam Probolsky, chairman and CEO of Probolsky Research LLC, a firm specializing in opinion research for corporate and government agencies. He sees China’s role in US federal government spending as influencing American voters. “The American people are angry about out-of-control spending in Washington,” Probolosky says. “There is recognition that the Chinese, through their purchasing of our Treasury bonds, are complicit in this spending spree.”

He sees several factors that are changing the American electorate’s view on China: the loss of US jobs to China, the amount of US debt China owns, China’s expanding military, and the PRC government’s relationship with North Korea.

In the short term, Scissors believes American voters are responding to congressional action and campaign events. “In 2008, the economic crisis was clearly our fault,” he says. “Now a number of [federal] incumbents don’t want to take responsibility for their failed attempts to address the crisis. They’re using China as a scapegoat.”

Jason Roe, partner at Revolvis Consulting, a political consulting firm that advises Republican candidates, thinks American voters are fed up with China. “Americans want to see candidates who are willing to stand up to China,” Roe says. “I would say the view is that American policymakers are timid in confronting China, and it is a frustration to the electorate.” But like Scissors, Roe sees opportunities for engagement with China. “People want to see engagement [with China] for more understanding of the culture and system and identify opportunities to export American goods.”

Robert Haus, an experienced Iowa Republican campaigner and vice president of public relations at Des Moines, Iowa-based Policy Works LLC, a consulting firm specializing in corporate communications and issue campaigns, says the two main factors shaping the American electorate’s views on China are the current presidential election and the current budget crises. “As America’s budget problems continue, we are being told the only people ‘bailing us out’ are the Chinese, and that is causing concern among investors and entrepreneurs.”

During the Iowa caucuses in January and PRC Vice President Xi Jinping’s visit to Iowa in February, Haus says, “Basically, only the anti-China messages have gotten through, there’s been no counterbalancing argument.” He says that Xi’s visit was important for the state of Iowa because Xi was able to “put a human and friendly face on the Chinese government, and reinforced just how much brings us together, and that we share.”

Brookings Institution Scholar Jeff Bader, who recently served in the Obama administration as senior director for East Asian affairs on the National Security Council, agrees that the United States and China share common interests. In remarks given at a recent Brookings event, Bader told the audience that the United States needs to seek a more stable relationship with China based on more engagement and expanded American trade and exports to the country. Remarking on the current campaign rhetoric, Bader said it was “important to not make the same mistakes of recent presidential campaigns, which got us off to a bad start.” He stressed that American voters should be cautious when candidates make specific commitments on what they intend to do with China. Bader said that winning candidates have damaged their credibility when they “walk back from those commitments” on China. He said the United States loses credibility with the PRC government when a candidate says one thing on the campaign trail but does another in the Oval Office.

Regardless of who wins the presidency this fall, it may be difficult for Obama or any of the Republican presidential candidates to walk away from their positions on China. American voters are confronting a China that is a new global player with the scale, wherewithal, and polices in place to truly compete with America’s long-held top economic spot. This is a relatively unknown place for the American electorate, and the presidential candidates have taken this opportunity to offer simple but short-sighted economic fixes.

“Candidates need to be careful in just talking about China’s currency manipulation as the solution to America’s economic challenges without advancing plans to reform our own policies that will help improve our competitive advantage with China,” says David Mercer, a former senior Democratic National Committee staffer and current president at the public affairs consulting firm Mercer & Associates. American voters would be better served in the long-run if candidates avoided easy political fixes and empty campaign rhetoric that damages US credibility.

[author] Marc Ross ([email protected]) is the communications director at the US-China Business Council in Washington, DC. [/author]

Posted by Christina Nelson