November 21, 2011

Obama and GOP United on China Policy: Is China Really A Threat To The U.S.?


  
By Stan Abrams

The teaching and lawyering have kept me busy this week, so I haven’t had much time to talk about President Obama’s Asia trip, or as future historians might call it, the “Containment Tour.” Anyway, hypocrisy seems to be the name of the game for U.S. politicians when it comes to China policy (as usual), and I found two articles this evening that echo my opinions on the subject.

The first is from Joshua Green, writing in Businessweekon the Republican presidential candidates. His article, which is subtitled “Presidential candidates love to talk tough about Beijing—until they get elected,” is spot on. I’ve written before about how remarkably consistent U.S. foreign policy has been in the past several decades since President Nixon’s famous trip, this despite some very inconsistent pressure from Congress. At the same time, presidential candidates have a nasty habit of spewing forth some incredibly inane China policies.

Green calls this for what it is and reminds everyone what’s likely to happen after the campaign is over regardless of who wins:
The Republican Presidential candidates routinely excoriate President Obama, and his dealings with China are no exception.
[ . . . ]
That kind of talk resonates with voters, especially in a weak economy. But would Romney’s election, or anybody else’s, bring meaningful changes in U.S. policy? Don’t bet on it.Castigating the White House as weak on China—while promising to be much tougher—is a tradition among Presidential aspirants of both parties that stretches back for decades. Rarely do they follow through once in office.
[ . . . ]
The lesson that new Presidents since Richard Nixon have learned is that China is a more difficult problem than it appears from the safe distance of the campaign trail. That’s why, for all their clamor as candidates, actual Presidents rarely attempt the dramatic changes they campaign on.
Green not only runs through a bit of campaign history, but he also explains the current political calculation being made by the latest crop of hopefuls. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve noted before that I have zero expectations of Mitt Romney following through on his China bashing. Romney has been playing a role of late, being perhaps the toughest China critic on the campaign trail, but the gap between his words and actions is quite wide, and well known.

Romney has a reputation of being a pragmatist, as well as an opportunist. Green points out that most campaigners fall into this pattern when it comes to China policy. For regular China watchers, none of this is breaking news. However, Green connects the dots here quite well.

Best line in the article:
In a campaign that will be fought over the economy, [Romney] understands China is as much an issue of domestic economics as foreign policy.
So much for the GOP. What about Obama and his “don’t call it containment” tour? Well, the president’s language sure has been tough. “China must play by the rules,” “Enough is enough,” etc. I’m sure the home crowd was suitably impressed.

The problem for Obama, and the reason why his rhetoric comes off as a bit silly, is that his actions have been anything but tough. In my opinion, neither his words nor his actions need to be aggressive. However, if you’re going to play the heavy and put together a new Pacific coalition to counteract China’s regional power, at least be consistent and back up your bark with a bite. Given Obama’s actions on China over the past couple of years, talking tough now just makes his policy appear disjointed and ineffectual.

But Clyde Prestowitz says this a heck of a lot better than me, explaining that Obama has had plenty of opportunities to play the tough guy and has consistently failed to do so.

Pardon the length of the excerpt here, but Prestowitz’s article is excellent and deserves the space:
So clearly the U.S. “pivot” is aimed at China and is based on the assessment that China poses an actual or potential threat to the interests of the United States and its allies.
But if that is the case, why is the United States pursuing trade and globalization policies that tend to undermine its own economic competitiveness while feeding the Chinese dragon? If he thinks the threat of China is sufficient to justify increasing U.S. military deployments in the Pacific, why does the president (who also presumably is interested in creating new American jobs) not call his friend Jeff Immelt out on moving avionics production to China?
The president said in Honolulu that China is purposely undervaluing its currency in ways that are incompatible with free trade. He knows that China is manipulating its currency in violation of its IMF and WTO commitments. Why doesn’t he direct his officials to file formal complaints and seek redress?
Or for that matter, why is he “back” in Asia with more military deployments? These deployments serve primarily to dampen conflicts between the various Asian countries, to calm region wide fears, and to make Asia safe for investment by global companies engaging in labor arbitrage by off-shoring their production to the Pacific. In effect, the U.S. military makes Asia safe for off-shoring and out-sourcing of production and jobs. One of America’s great competitive advantages is that it operates under a rule of law with strong property protection and is a safe place to invest. Why do U.S. policy makers want actively to negate that advantage?
It would be one thing if there were a real threat to America in the Asia-Pacific region. But there isn’t. Whatever it does in the South China Sea, China is not going to invade the United States. Nor is it going to stop selling to the United States nor is it going to stop buying things it can’t make itself from the United States. U.S. oil does not come through the Straits of Malacca or the South China Sea.
In short, the threat China poses to America is not a military or national security threat. Indeed, it is not clear that China even poses a threat to America so much as America poses a threat to itself.
Wow. That’s really an excellent argument. If the U.S. really considers China to be an enemy, a threat, then do something about it. However, if this is all empty political theater, perhaps this rhetoric isn’t really all that productive.

Of course Obama, like his GOP counterparts, apparently care much more about how all this tough talk plays in Peoria than what effect it will have on bilateral relations

About The Author - Stan Abrams is a Beijing-based IP/IT lawyer and law professor. Stan has an M.A. from Johns Hopkins in International Relations, a J.D. from Boston College Law School, and a B.A. from Pomona College.  Stan maintains a blog at China Hearsay.  (EconMatters author archive here)


The views and opinions expressed herein are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of EconMatters.

© EconMatters All Rights Reserved | Facebook | Twitter | Post Alert | Kindle