Jacob Heilbrunn

Why Are The Republican Candidates Bashing China?

The Republican primary keeps getting wilder. The wildest statements—at least the most recent ones—have emanated from former senator Rick Santorum and Texas governor Rick Perry. Santorum said he believes that the entire West Bank belongs to Israel. It's filled with Israelis, in his view, ergo it is Israeli territory. Meanwhile, Perry announced that not only was it a bad idea to remove American troops from Iraq, as President Obama has, but that he, as president, would reverse the decision. He would send troops back to Iraq so as to counter the influence of Iran in the region.

But perhaps the most troubling aspect of the GOP primary isn't the effusions of Santorum or Perry but the fact that Mitt Romney has been attacking China. Romney has stated that Obama has allowed China to "run all over us" when it comes to taking American jobs. For good measure, he's added that he would force China to appear before the World Trade Organization for manipulating its currency. Why should this be of concern? The problem is simple: Treat China like an enemy, and it will become one. And make no mistake. The Republican field, as James Traub points out in a vital essay in the January/February issue of the Washington Monthly, is doing just that.

As Traub notes, America—no, the world—needs China. China is an essential partner on the global economy and climate change. Yet Republicans are emphasizing that it's essential to confront China. But this could backfire, provoking Chinese nationalism, with no descernible benefit to America. Traub notes,

It is an article of faith among Republicans that the twenty-first century, like the twentieth, will be an American century—which is to say, not a Chinese one. But 'communist China' is an absurd archaism, and China is not likely to windup on the ash heap of history. Treating the world's premier rising power like the Soviet Union in the 1960s would be a mistake of historic proportions.

It would be difficult to disagree. No doubt China will often be a competitor of America; at other times, it may well have interests that are congruent with ours. But the one thing it doesn't have to be is an adversary. The truth is that there has been an unseemly search for a new enemy among conservatives ever since the end of the Cold War. In the 1990s, China was touted by some as America's enemy. Then came the 9/11 attacks. China was put on the back burner. But is it purely concidental that now that the war on terror is winding down, or at least being conducted in a more prudent fashion, that bellicosity about China has become fashionable among Republicans?

China has long been a bugaboo on the Right. In the early 1950s, conservatives implausibly claimed that the Truman administration had "lost" China by capitulating to the communists. But it wasn't America's to lose. What D. W. Brogan called the illusion of American omnipotence flourished in the '50s—the notion that bad things could only occur abroad as the result of a domestic conspiracy. Otherwise, America was too virtuous and powerful to be stopped. Of course this illusion was shattered in Vietnam—at least temporarily, until it was resuscitated by the George W. Bush administration as it went to war in Iraq.

Today a Republican president who actually followed the prescriptions being enunicated during the primaries would wreak havoc in foreign affairs. The truculence of the candidates, apart from Ron Paul, suggests that they have learned little or nothing from the Bush era. It's a testament to hubris or obduracy, or perhaps both at the very same time. Whether a new sobriety would prevail once a Republican candidate was actually in office is another matter. It's hard to believe that Romney, for one, actually believes what he is saying. But there is no gainsaying the fact that bashing China is acquiring a new and unfortunate respectability among Republicans.

Image: Gage Skidmore