China bashing in the 2016 presidential election has begun in earnest. In past campaigns, many of the attacks on China were forgotten as candidates dropped out of the race or were defeated. In 2012, for example, Mitt Romney pledged to declare China a currency manipulator on his first day in office. He never got the chance, of course, and Obama's policies were unaffected by Romney's campaign rhetoric.
Sometimes, promises to 'get tough' with China during the campaign simply became irrelevant as presidents, once in power, confront the demands of real-world policy challenges. When George W Bush ran for president in 2000, he criticized his predecessor Bill Clinton for calling China a strategic partner, and instead said China should be viewed as a 'strategic competitor.' After becoming president, however, Bush dropped that label. When a Chinese jet collided with a U.S. surveillance plane over the South China Sea, Bush worked hard to avert a U.S.-China political crisis, and after the September 11 attacks, he welcomed Beijing's proposal to fight together against terrorism.
This time may be different, however.
China's repressive policies at home, combined with its transgressions in the South China Sea and massive cyber attacks on U.S. companies and the Federal Government, make it an easy target. Moreover, criticism of China likely resonates with most Americans. Republican candidates will accuse Obama of being too soft on China and vow that if elected, they will stand up for American interests. Democrats, including Obama's former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, are more likely to find fault with than defend the current Administration's approach to managing U.S.-China relations. Regardless of who is elected president in November 2016, he or she is likely to adopt a firmer approach to China on a litany of issues.
So what are the candidates saying about China so far?
GOP candidate Donald Trump condemned China's recent currency devaluation as “the greatest theft in the history of the United States.” If elected president, Trump said,
“Oh would China be in trouble!” Carly Fiorina, another GOP contender, criticized China's cyber hacks on federal databases as an “act of aggression” against America. She also warned against allowing the Chinese to control trade routes in the South China Sea and pledged she would be “more aggressive in helping our allies...push back against new Chinese aggression.” In a lengthy critique of Obama Administration policies published in Foreign Affairs, GOP candidate Marco Rubio lambasted Obama's “willingness to ignore human rights violations in the hope of appeasing the Chinese leadership.” He also accused China of pursuing “increasingly aggressive regional expansionism.”
Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has joined the fray in an effort to shield herself from the accusation that she was complicit in the implementation of a policy that accommodated China and failed to sufficiently stand up for American interests. Clinton acknowledges that as secretary of state she worked hard to build a better relationship with China and says she would continue to do so as president. But she also warns about the dangers posed by China's militarization of the South China Sea and condemns China's “stealing commercial secrets, blueprints from defense contractors” and “huge amounts of government information” in its quest for an advantage over other nations.
The presidential campaign is just starting to heat up. The torrent of China-bashing in the remaining 15 months before the general election is likely to have a profoundly negative effect on China's image in the U.S., which is already unfavorable. In a 2014 poll by the Pew Research Center, only 35% of Americans had a positive view of China, while 55% had a negative one. China's image in the U.S. has tilted in a more negative direction in recent years – as recently as 2011 half of Americans gave China a positive rating.
The negative public mood will likely align with harsher attitudes in Congress, reinforcing the proclivities of the next U.S. president to adopt a tougher stance against Chinese trade policies, human rights violations, cyber intrusions, and assertiveness in the South China Sea. Despite a sincere desire for a positive bilateral relationship with the US, Xi Jinping is likely to prioritize the preservation of domestic stability, defense of sovereignty, and pursuit of the Chinese Dream.
Fasten your seat belts and get ready for a rough ride in US-China relations beginning in 2017.
This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here.
Image: Flickr/Creative Commons.