As the U.S. presidential election swiftly approaches, many wonder what policy approach the next president - be it Barack Obama or Mitt Romney - will take with regard to China. Thomas Fingar, FSI’s Oksenberg-Rohlen Distinguished Fellow, considers how the outcome of the election could impact U.S.-China relations, and how the United States could focus its priorities in Asia.
Q. How does China see a Mitt Romney presidency?
Fingar: Conventional wisdom about China has long held that Beijing prefers Republicans to Democrats, primarily because Republicans are thought to be more interested in trade and less concerned about human rights. I'm not sure that particular characterization of Beijing's views was ever correct, but to the extent that it was, it is of decreasing importance and almost entirely absent now. The Chinese have been anxious about Governor Romney’s positions on China during the campaign, seeing his statements as excessive or unjustifiably critical and indicative of a determination to contain or constrain China's economic rise.
Beijing has expressed concern that Romney intends to act in ways that threaten China's continued rapid economic growth and undermine the communist-led regime. Such concerns were likely alleviated during the final debate when Romney said he views China as a potential partner, not an adversary. However, the Chinese will likely assume that Romney's call for more defense spending is aimed at containing China, since the United States’ only other declared security threat is Iran.
Q. Romney says he would label China a currency manipulator on “day one” of his presidency. Do presidents have the power to do such a thing? Could this trigger a trade war?
Fingar: Presidents can certainly announce rhetorical positions, but it is highly unlikely that such a declaration would lead to actions that could trigger a trade war. It could launch a political and bureaucratic process in which advocates with competing objectives and strategies would seek to fashion policy adjustments in order to achieve them. It would not, however, lead automatically to actions that would damage a relationship in which Americans, as well as the Chinese, have an enormously important stake.
Q. What positive or problematic developments could impact U.S.-China relations if Obama wins a second term?
Fingar: I anticipate many issues and problems, but no crises. The foundation for the relationship – interdependence and mutual benefit – is strong and growing stronger. That said, what happens in China will be important to the United States and command presidential attention. If China's economy continues to slow, it will slow recovery of the U.S. economy, both directly and by reducing Chinese purchases and sales to and from third countries that use earnings from sales to China to purchase goods and services from the United States. Continued deferral of resolving territorial disputes in the Sea of Japan and South China Sea will exacerbate perceptions that the United States should serve as a counterbalance to China, complicating U.S.-China relations. Another issue sure to be on the table is Chinese failure to honor World Trade Organization and intellectual property rights commitments.
Q. Obama’s rhetoric on China has become increasingly aggressive. Do you anticipate a tougher stand toward China if he is re-elected?
Fingar: Nothing that President Obama has said during the campaign suggests to me that he would make significant changes to U.S. policy toward China if he were re-elected. It would be a mistake to read too much into the number of times China is mentioned relative to other countries, as “China” is often used as a proxy for all foreign economic competition and the effects of globalization. Beijing should not take this personally; this is part of the price of becoming the world’s second-largest economy and having the biggest trade deficit with the United States. Far more important than such rhetoric are Obama’s and Romney’s references to seeking a partnership with China and the need for China to “play by the rules” with respect to WTO commitments, intellectual property rights and the treatment of foreign firms operating in China. I am confident Obama has no desire to make China into an enemy and no intention to contain or constrain China’s “rise.”
Q. Some doubt the Pentagon has the resources to deter Iran while pivoting to Asia. Which is more urgent for the new administration?
Fingar: The United States continues to have enormous military capabilities. Moreover, it counts as allies and partners most other major nations and military powers. Iran knows that, but threats to use military force are not likely to persuade Tehran to abandon the potential to acquire nuclear weapons. Indeed, such threats would likely bolster the arguments of people who claim Iran needs nuclear weapons to deter stronger and hostile adversaries. Diplomacy, backed by international sanctions, and enlightened Iranian self-interest offer a far better path to deterring Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Q. Do you expect the so-called Asia pivot to continue under the foreign policy team of the incoming president?
Fingar: East Asia is the most dynamic region in the world and the United States has many important interests and ties there. We are a Pacific power and a Pacific player and must remain heavily engaged in the region. The “pivot” toward Asia is a misnomer because it implies that we left and are now returning. We never left and never will. The “rebalancing” toward Asia is intended to reduce uncertainty about American intentions and to help prolong the period of peace and stability that has been critical to the achievement of prosperity and interdependence in the region. I hope the new administration, whoever wins, will redouble efforts to build a new, inclusive security arrangement for the region.