China has played a significant role in the foreign policy discussions surrounding the 2012 U.S. presidential election. President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney have attacked China in order to appeal to American voters’ concerns about U.S. jobs and the economy. But the candidates’ harsh rhetoric has also reached an unintended audience: China. This could potentially have a negative impact on U.S.-China relations.

The U.S. embassy hosted a panel discussion at the Beijing American Center to analyze the American presidential campaign and its implications for the future of bilateral relations. Carnegie-Tsinghua’s Paul Haenle and the American Chamber of Commerce’s Ted Dean participated in a discussion moderated by CCTV’s Tian Wei.

Understanding the Election Strategy

The three presidential debates, along with constant campaigning, have generated questions over the extent to which U.S. policy toward China can sway American voters. Both candidates’ respective performances at the debates had a significant impact on which candidate led in the polls.

  • Third Debate, A Draw: In response to Tian’s question about the candidates’ performances in each of the three debates, Haenle explained that following the mixed performances by both candidates in the first two debates, Romney’s goal was to appear presidential and competent in the third, while Obama needed to defend his record. Haenle observed that Romney, who until this point had expressed harsher rhetoric toward China, seemed to scale back his attacks and stressed that China could be a U.S. partner rather than an adversary. According to most political observers, Haenle added, the last debate was seen as a draw.
  • The Economy: China was expected to be the focus of the third debate, given how both candidates’ foreign policy platforms had highlighted China, Haenle said. However, both candidates used China to focus instead on the U.S. auto industry and unemployment. Haenle explained that it is easy for the candidates to link the currency manipulation question and other concerns about China to U.S. domestic economic concerns, rather than foreign policy.
  • Swing State Politics: Both Haenle and Dean emphasized that the rhetoric of the final debate was shaped by a desire to sway undecided voters in key swing states such as Ohio. In many of these swing states, manufacturing dominates the local economy. As a result, Haenle explained, both candidates have to act tough on China in order to convey to swing state voters that they will protect local industries and jobs. This rhetoric is designed for a domestic, rather than international audience.

Campaign Rhetoric Versus Actual Policy

Historically, U.S. presidential campaigns have portrayed China in a negative light. However, this bashing is often only rhetorical and has not been put into practice by any president since the normalization of U.S.-China relations.

  • Rhetoric or Reality?: Haenle charted the history of U.S. presidential campaigns since the 1980s and showed how each election used China as a political scapegoat even though policy would revert to being cooperative and pragmatic after the election. Presidents Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, and even Obama threatened tough action and policy changes on China while on the campaign trail, but none carried this rhetoric into policy, he said.
  • Accuracy of Social Media: Haenle stressed the need to distinguish public dialogue on social media platforms from government voices and policy. The U.S. public often expresses views through social media which should not be taken as official policy. Haenle drew comparisons with China such as how micro-blogging and Weibo allow for a wide range of Chinese to express their views on the United States, which do not represent the government.

Areas of Post-Election U.S.-China Cooperation

Outside of the debate on China’s currency and economic impact on jobs, the issues of security and trade relations have not been broached during the campaign. These issues will affect U.S. foreign policy far more than the China-bashing rhetoric of the campaign.

  • Increased Trade and Investment Require More Cooperation: Dean stressed the economic imperatives of U.S.-China cooperation, noting the issues of currency, foreign investment regulations, and intellectual property challenges.
  • Currency Manipulation: Despite Romney’s focus on currency manipulation, Dean said the more pressing issue is foreign investment. Chinese companies and entrepreneurs invest heavily in the United States, and American companies would like the same opportunities in China. Haenle said that he does not believe Romney would label China a currency manipulator if elected, while Dean predicted that if Romney did take action, the label would mostly provoke China and strain relations.
  • North Korea, Syria, and Iran: Haenle stated that global security challenges are a key motivation and opportunity for U.S.-China cooperation. Both Beijing and Washington share goals to prevent nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran, and both would like to see the end of violence and a return to stability in Syria. Cooperation will be necessary to find a solution to these complex challenges.