Big Bird or China? It’s hard to know which of those current campaign topics will sway the American voter more. Of the two, however, it is China that needs the wisest debate and most restrained political rhetoric.
China’s rise as a global competitor with America has pushed Mitt Romney and President Obama to start competing over which one will be tougher on the Asian giant. Adding to the campaign fireworks is a report Monday by the House Intelligence Committee that finds Chinese telecom firms Huawei and ZTE pose a security threat to the United States and should be barred from buying American companies.
“China has the means, opportunity and motive to use telecommunications companies for malicious purposes,” the report says, adding that the two firms “cannot be trusted to be free of foreign state influence.”
Mr. Romney has promised to officially label Beijing as an unfair manipulator of its currency rate and to “crack down on China, if and when they cheat” on trade or intellectual property.
Last week, Mr. Obama blocked a Chinese firm, Ralls Corp, from buying a wind-farm project near a US naval facility in Oregon. While campaigning in Ohio, he lodged an official complaint against China at the World Trade Organization and began to use the phrase “economic patriotism.” And he recently announced that the US military would place most of its resources in Asia as a counterweight to China’s own military rise.
Pollsters have even begun to ask voters which candidate would better deal with China (Romney usually comes out ahead).
This sort of China-bashing in the presidential contest may be the strongest since the two countries began to restore ties in 1972. One reason is that China’s greater economic clout stands out even more during the longest American downturn since the Great Depression.
China’s rise is now “the fundamental problem of American foreign policy,” former Nixon security adviser Henry Kissinger said last week. Or as former US Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman put it, US-China ties are “probably the most complicated relationship in the world.”
While some voters can be expected to pick Obama or Romney based on their China policies, the two candidates themselves must be careful not to say things that they may regret later as president.
The countries have gained far more from cooperating than clashing. Most of all, their leaders have held regular strategic dialogues over the past 15 years to keep the relationship in perspective so they can manage any dangerous confrontation.
The issues worth debating in the political campaign should be on how best to build up a healthy competition and to create greater cooperation on global issues. Neither side, as the world’s two largest economies are now well knit together in trade and investment, reacts well to threats. Both China and the US are currently in a political leadership transition and, despite the temptation to use nationalism to gain favor with domestic groups, both Beijing and Washington should be wise enough to see the good they can do together.
Four decades of relatively peaceful and productive ties should be a reminder of how to put today’s issues in the perspective of the next 40 years.