Healthcare, the economy, and Iraq have received large amounts of attention in the presidential campaigns, but what about America’s relationship with China?
Though the American media is full of news and opinions about China’s rise and increasing international influence, U.S.-China relations have not loomed large in the presidential campaign. When the subject has been raised, however, the candidates have taken a remarkably similar stance towards China. “China is rising, and it’s not going away,” Senator Barack Obama said in during a South Carolina debate last year “They’re neither our enemy nor our friend. They’re competitors.” Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain have also made similar statements regarding China.
The ambivalence expressed by the three main contenders for the Oval Office echoes the sentiments of many Americans who feel uncertain about China’s ascent as a world power. Many respect the impact China’s economic gains and greater openness have had on the lives of ordinary Chinese, and some see China as the new land of possibility. Many worry, though, that China’s ascent threatens America’s economic and military preeminence.
“A more coherent way to talk about it is to say that China is a challenge,” said John Wills, a professor emeritus of Chinese history at the University of Southern California. Wills said that American foreign policy has traditionally perceived China in three ways: as a threat, a challenge and an opportunity.
At times the increasing impact China’s economic expansion has on the environment has been as central an issue for the remaining presidential candidates as trade and security concerns. The U.S. and China are the two leading producers of greenhouse gases, and China is thought to have overtaken the U.S. for the dubious honor of doing the most to produce global warming.
The threat of global warming has been a hot-button issue for Obama in particular. Besides quelling tensions in the Middle East, one of the main objectives of Obama’s foreign policy is a comprehensive multilateral treaty to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Though China’s per capita energy consumption and pollution production lags far behind America’s, its consumption is rising rapidly.
Obama has said that it is vital for China to play a leading role in halting global warming. According to his plan, the U.S. is expected to curb its own emissions before encouraging China to do the same. In Iowa, Obama said the U.S. needed to assist China in reducing pollution. “[I]f China is polluting, then eventually that is going to reach our shores,” Obama said. “We have to–and work with them cooperatively to solve their problems as well as ours.”
“It’s unclear what sort of changes China would be willing to make,” said Daniel Lynch, a professor of international relations at USC. “Their concern with the environment will stress domestic problems first.” Chinese authorities have acknowledged serious environmental problems, including polluted water and other health threats. The government has consistently argued that more developed nations have the greatest responsibility for curtailing harm to the global environment.
One theme highlighted at China’s recent Communist Party Congress is the promotion of scientific or sustainable development. This is seen in large measure as removing particles from the air and making its water potable. It’s not necessarily seen as combating global warming, especially at the cost of continued economic growth.
Wills thinks the 2008 Olympics, a period during which Beijing will be under the international media’s spotlight and scrutiny, may change China’s attitude on greenhouse gas emissions. “What’s going to make a big difference in terms of the Chinese leadership thinking harder about it, is whether they get through the Olympics without an air-quality disaster or not,” he said, noting that arduous events such as the marathon will be even more daunting because of Beijing’s poor air quality.
The effect of trade with China on American workers has also been a common theme in recent presidential campaigns, especially on the Democratic side. Obama and Clinton have repeatedly pledged to “look out” for the American worker. During a presidential debate at Howard University in July last year, Clinton laid out her strategy for protecting American blue-collar workers: “We have to do several things: end the tax breaks that still exist in the tax code for outsourcing jobs, have trade agreements with enforceable labor and environmental standards, help Americans compete, which is something we haven’t taken seriously,” she said.
Clinton and Obama both agree that aid in the form of college tuition credits and seed funding for new industries, such as alternative energy sources, could create millions of new jobs. During a December debate, Obama argued the U.S. had to “get our own fiscal house in order” by reducing our debt, to follow the Chinese and step up investing in Africa and to negotiate “on behalf of Main Street” and not Wall Street.
McCain, though, has stressed the need to guard against buying into what he sees as protectionist rhetoric. “It sounds like a lot of fun to bash China and others, but free trade has been the engine of our economy,” he said in a debate in Michigan last October. “Free trade should be the continuing principle that guides this nation’s economy.” McCain went on to say that the manufacturing jobs that have been outsourced to countries like China are not likely to return. Like the Democratic contenders, McCain also sees education and job retraining as central to cushioning American workers from globalization, including competition from China.
All three leading candidates have condemned China’s human rights record. In 2005, Clinton wrote to President Bush urging him to discuss human rights abuses in an upcoming summit with China’s leadership. Her letter spoke out against the one-child policy, religious repression and the poor treatment of Chinese workers. “It is to our mutual benefit to work together to address the range of challenges facing both us,” she wrote. “Economic and social advances will be lasting only if they are built on a foundation of respect for human rights.” Clinton has been raising similar points for quite some time. When her husband was president, Clinton traveled to Beijing for the 1995 United Nations Conference on Women. It was there she asserted that “women’s rights are human rights.”
It was President Bill Clinton, however, who ultimately decoupled American trade policy toward China from human rights considerations. He had offered tough talk as a candidate, criticizing then President George H.W. Bush for coddling the “butchers of Beijing.” In office, however, Bill Clinton adopted the same sort of policy of engagement that his predecessors and his successor have favored. Initially President Clinton renewed China’s most-favored-nation trading status with two caveats. The first was that MFN status would have to be renewed annually. The second was that the renewal of MFN status for China would be subject to an improvement in the country’s human rights performance.
In the following year, President Clinton’s Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, went to China seeking concessions on human rights. China refused. Despite the clear indication that China’s human rights performance had not improved, the Clinton administration extended MFN status to China.
“So many people were starting to benefit from the trade relationship by then that the President’s hands were tied,” Lynch said.
Just as Bill Clinton criticized George H.W. Bush, then candidate George W. Bush criticized Clinton’s policies. After the difficult spy plane incident in the first months of his administration, though, then recently inaugurated President Bush also adopted a policy of engagement, especially through even stronger trade ties.
Business interests have championed these policies, through the lobbying of individual companies and by their associations, and through sympathetic members of Congress.
While generally sympathetic to business interests and especially the efforts of American firms to enter the Chinese market, each candidate has condemned the role some firms have played in assisting Chinese authorities in the erection of a Chinese firewall and persecuting dissidents. McCain was particularly angered by Yahoo’s 2004 decision to disclose information to Chinese authorities regarding Shi Tao, a journalist who passed along to an overseas pro-democracy group a summary of a government internal order barring reporting about the 1989 demonstrations and their suppression. Shi was subsequently sentenced to ten years in prison. Until last fall, Yahoo denied that its Hong Kong employees knew what the Chinese authorities were investigating. In fact, the authorities told Yahoo they were investigating a state secrets violation.
Many believe that a desire to retain access to the vast Chinese market is what motivated Yahoo’s cooperation with the Chinese investigators. “It’s embarrassing, and it’s frustrating,” McCain said in an interview with the technology blog, Techcrunch.com last November. “It confirms the suspicions of some Americans that, for the sake of profit, major corporations in America will do most anything.” McCain believes the free market will penalize such actions of its own volition—Yahoo’s stock fell by 7.7% the day after the company’s CEO was called to testify about the matter before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
While McCain and others call for corporations to take a broader view of their responsibilities, many observers believe the technology titans feel a competitive pressure to be in China. As Wills said, “They will probably do what they have to do to stay in business in China.” Wills, however, goes on to argue that “Chinese hackers will probably find a way around whatever the government puts up.”
Beyond the desire of America-based corporations to establish themselves in China, the next president will find that he or she needs the Chinese government’s assistance on important issues. Fighting global warming is one such challenge, but there are others. For example, Lynch believes that the focus on Iraq will be too great for a president to risk doing something that might yield significant tensions with China. “Even if one of the presidential candidates was inclined to make an issue of China as a potential danger to the United States down the road, they would want to wait until Iraq is settled,” he said. “And that’s going to take a lot of time.”
And it now appears that a slumping economy is going to be the principal challenge for whoever moves into the White House. This may generate calls for pressure on the Chinese to revalue their currency and further open their financial services and other markets. Charges of unfair labor practices and dumping of goods are likely to increase as well.
Last June, Obama wrote to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson complaining that the U.S. government had not done enough to stop Chinese “currency manipulation.” Even so, it may be that America’s economic fortunes are now so interwoven with its need for Chinese acquiescence, if not support, in international affairs, that any new president will follow the pattern of his or her predecessors to use China as a punching bag during the campaign, but feel compelled to take a more centrist position upon coming into office. “The policy of the United States toward China is, to a large extent, dictated these days by the structural parameters of the situation, and there’s only so much a President can do to change it,” Lynch said.
U.S.-Chinese interdependence is what drives decision-making. “The image of the relationship I often use is we have our hands around each others necks, and we are going over the waterfall together,” said Adam Segal, a senior fellow for China Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It is very hard for the Chinese to exert pressure without hurting themselves.” It is equally hard for America to exert pressure on China without harming its own interests.
While Senators Clinton, McCain and Obama differ in some ways in their attitudes toward China, whoever becomes the next president will likely elect to avoid major shifts in policies or actions toward the world’s largest nation, America’s second-largest trading partner and one of the country’s key creditors.
Anthony Marra is a student at the University of Southern California.