US election campaign just got wilder

Updated: 2012-01-21 08:20

By Fei Erzi (China Daily)

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People in the United States and the rest of the world are watching the Republican presidential primaries closely.

The US officially embarked on the road to the critical presidential election in November with the Republican caucus in Iowa and the New Hampshire primary. The journey will be heavily influenced by interpretations of the US economy and its relationships with the rest of the world.

Some people lament the extent to which the US has lost its competitive edge to other countries, especially in Asia; they are saddened that it can no longer influence global economic and financial outcomes.

Therefore, it should not be surprising to see candidates going to extremes in the heat of the campaign to make their points clear. To a certain degree, they are already doing so and have let US domestic politics hijack Sino-US relations.

Republicans are emphasizing that it's necessary to confront China. Mitt Romney, the leading Republican candidate, is already attacking China. He has said that US President Barack Obama has allowed China to "run all over us" when it comes to taking American jobs. He favors imposing tariffs on China to "punish" it for its "currency manipulation".

But China is more than what the Republicans think about it. A 2011 Pew Research Center poll identified three core Republican groups, based on their attitudes to certain questions. About 80 percent of the "staunch conservatives" wanted the US to get tough with China on economic issues, but "main street Republicans" and "Libertarians" were more evenly divided on whether Washington should get tough or build stronger economic relations with Beijing.

Should we get angry that China figures so prominently in an election campaign on the other side of the Pacific?

Advocates of stronger Sino-US trade and cooperation in Washington are looking more closely at the anti-Beijing rhetoric, fearing that it could lead their country into a trade war with China. The US-China Business Council has even produced fact sheets detailing the impact of trade with China on key primary and caucus states.

New Hampshire, for example, exports $412 million worth of goods to China every year, making it the third-largest US state exporter to China. South Carolina exports goods worth $2.2 billion to China. Besides, the annual exports from Nevada to China increased from about $11 million in 1996 to more than $455 million in 2010, according to data provided by the state.

There's little doubt that the dominance of the US as a global economic power is coming to end, and the future will see other economies competing with it for influence and/or market share.

Foreign Policy, a bimonthly American magazine, sought the opinions of nine leading international relations scholars, including Francis Fukuyama, Joseph S. Nye and Robert Keohane, on the biggest foreign-policy challenges facing the US. Thirty-two percent of the scholars said their shortlist included the rising power of China, up from 23 percent in the 2008 survey. The scholars said East Asia was the region of the greatest strategic importance to the US today, with 45 percent - or 15 percentage points more than in 2008 - of them identifying it as the most significant area.

There are other reasons why we shouldn't take the election campaign at face value, for the Republican primaries are getting wilder on other issues too. Take former senator Rick Santorum and Texas governor Rick Perry, for instance. Santorum said he believed that the entire West Bank belongs to Israel. According to him, it is filled with Israelis and is thus an Israeli territory. Perry, on the other hand, said it was a bad idea to withdraw US troops from Iraq and, if elected president, he would reverse Obama's decision and send them back to Iraq to counter the influence of Iran in the region.

What should one make of such comments? If the Republicans can be so absurd during the campaign, should we take them seriously?

The author is a senior writer with China Daily.