After 'beauty contest', business as usual
Updated: 2012-04-27 08:49
By Xie Tao (China Daily)
As US voters prepare to elect a president, analysts ponder what it will mean for China
AUS presidential election is more than a battle of ideas and a clash of candidates; it is also high-powered entertainment, replete with scandals, allegations, jokes and cartoons.
Yet across the Pacific, Chinese observers of US politics seem to care little about the fun part of presidential elections. Instead, their primary focus is on who will win and what implications the election outcome portends for US-China relations. They tend to believe that a new president, or a reelected one, may bring about significant shifts in US policy toward China. That belief has almost always turned out to be unfounded.
Over 40 years, from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, the dominant trend of US China policy has been one of remarkable continuity. Barring extraordinary circumstances, if there was any noticeable change at all, it was often more of fine-tuning than a bolt of lightning. China-bashing on the presidential campaign trail could be very unsettling, but such rhetoric is usually posturing aimed at reassuring political supporters so should not be taken seriously as announcements of coherent policy platforms. Once the campaign dust settles, the candidate-elect (or re-elected) will have to face a multitude of domestic, bilateral, and international factors that combine to make it extremely difficult to chart a new course in China policy.
During the 1980 campaign the Republican candidate, Ronald Reagan, denounced president Jimmy Carter's alleged sell-out of Taiwan and repeatedly called for official relations with the island to be restored. Yet less than two years after he took office, he signed a landmark communique with Beijing that promised a gradual decrease in US arms sales to Taiwan.
The 1992 election is the most illuminating example. The Democrat candidate, Bill Clinton, mercilessly criticized the China policy of president George Bush senior, accusing him of "kowtowing to Beijing". He vowed to link China's normal trade relations status (formerly known as Most Favored Nation trade status) with the latter's human rights record. He fulfilled his campaign promise in his first year in office, but decided to delink human rights from trade in the second year. After that he committed himself to pursuing a constructive strategic partnership with China.
Campaigning for the White House in 2000, George Bush junior criticized Clinton for pursuing a strategic partnership with China, promising instead to treat China like a strategic competitor. The aircraft collision over the South China Sea in April 2001, three months after his inauguration, seemed to add credence to his suspicion of Clinton's China policy. Yet the Sept 11 attacks and the fight against terrorism, among other things, forced him to pursue a constructive and cooperative relationship with China. When he arrived in Beijing for the Olympic Games in 2008, the bilateral relationship was arguably at its best since 1989.
Amid the financial crisis, the 2008 Democrat candidate Obama promised to be tough on China's trade policy. Admittedly, trade spats between the countries have increased considerably since he took office, but these have had a negligible impact on booming bilateral trade. Moreover, on the most volatile issue of the Chinese currency, his administration has repeatedly refused to designate China as a currency manipulator, despite continued pressure from domestic groups.
So, if the past is any indication, being alarmed about what is said during a presidential election campaign is unjustified. Winning a campaign is essentially different from governing a country. To be sure, elections produce uncertainty, and uncertainty breeds anxiety. But in a mature democracy, the inherent uncertainty in elections is rather limited, compared with unlimited uncertainty in the process of leadership transition in non-democratic countries. For political institutions in democracies have effectively limited the potential impact that any single individual may have on policymaking, domestic or foreign.
Under its system of checks and balances and "separated institutions sharing power" a president's ability to unilaterally change the status quo is severely limited. Carter severed ties with Taiwan in order to normalize relations with Beijing, only to find that Congress immediately passed the Taiwan Relations Act to keep the essence of US-Taiwan relations. Clinton first promised not to grant a visa to the former Taiwanese leader Lee Teng-hui but later took back his words because of congressional pressure.
Apart from institutional barriers, the president, as the only nationally elected political figure, is supposed to be responsible for the welfare of the nation as a whole, not that of particular groups. Thus his promises to one group (for example, unions) will necessarily have to be balanced against his promises to another (such as export-competitive industries). As the size of one's constituency increases, so does the heterogeneity of interests, and heterogeneity contributes to moderation, not extremism. This is why members of Congress, those in the House of Representatives in particular, tend to be much more vocal in China-bashing, because their constituents are generally far more homogenous.
In addition to domestic factors, presidential policymaking is also heavily influenced by the state of affairs in the bilateral relationship. Regardless of who wins in November, he will have to face the fact that the two countries are enmeshed in an ever-expanding network of ties, economic, cultural, and educational. Total bilateral trade stood at $430 billion (327 billion euros) last year, and China is the largest holder of US Treasury bonds. Each year hundreds of thousands of students and scholars fly across the Pacific, and many more tourists have the other country as their destination.
Economic interdependence does not necessarily guarantee a stable and trusted relationship, but it does increase the cost of abrupt, sharp fluctuations in foreign policymaking.
At the global level, the US increasingly finds it imperative to have China's cooperation on a wide variety of critical issues: nuclear nonproliferation, climate change, the fight against terrorism, disaster relief, international piracy, and international financial stability. Without active cooperation from one of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council that happens also to be the world's second largest economy and is expected to be the world's largest within a decade or two, the US will be unable to achieve many of its foreign policy goals. This is again a fact, no matter how uncomfortable, that the incoming president cannot simply ignore.
All the factors mentioned should combine to ensure striking continuity in US-China relations, unless, of course, extraordinary events occur that drastically change the calculus of policymaking in Washington. The Obama administration's high-profile US re-engagement with and pivoting to Asia is an excellent example. As tensions rose between China and its neighbors, the US found it imperative to double its diplomatic and strategic presence in East Asia. Such a policy shift has been viewed with heightened alarm among Chinese observers. However, instead of looking across the Pacific for potential changes in US policy, these people are well advised to look inward for what went wrong with China's foreign policy in the past couple of years. Instead of fixing their attention on the political beauty contest in the US, they should reengage with Asia.
The author is a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
(China Daily 04/27/2012 page8)