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The Candidates on U.S. Policy toward China

April 14, 2008

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Issue Trackers trace the positions of candidates from the 2008 presidential campaign on major issues related to foreign policy.

China’s rise and its effects on the United States is a growing preoccupation of U.S. policymakers and politicians. With China’s economy booming (Forbes), its military prowess expanding rapidly, and continued tension with Taiwan, U.S. politicians on both sides of the aisle have expressed alarm. Republicans and Democrats have protested China’s ownership of a huge portion of U.S. national debt. U.S.-China relations also came under strain in early 2007 when the United States filed a case with the World Trade Organization against China ’s trade subsidies, which U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab argued are harmful to U.S. workers.

The next president will have to decide whether the United States should approach China with a more cooperative agenda.

Democratic Ticket on U.S. Policy toward China

Barack Obama
Democratic Party Nominee - President

President Obama has expressed interest in cooperation with China, although he sees the country as a major competitor to the United States. At the April 2007 debate among Democratic candidates, Obama said China is "neither our enemy nor our friend. They're competitors. But we have to make sure that we have enough military-to-military contact and forge enough of a relationship with them that we can stabilize the region."

In an April 2007 speech before the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Obama said he will "forge a more effective regional framework in Asia," building on "our strong bilateral relations and informal arrangements like the Six-Party Talks" on North Korea.

Obama has noted the problems with China's revaluation of the yuan. He has said that although the United States should maintain a cooperative relationship with China, it should "never hesitate to be clear and consistent with China where we disagree—whether on protection of intellectual property rights, the manipulation of its currency, human rights, or the right stance on Sudan and Iran."

In March 2008, Obama condemned China's crackdown on protests by Tibetan Buddhist monks. He called on China to respect Tibet's religion and culture, and said China should grant Tibet "genuine and meaningful autonomy." Obama also said the Dalai Lama should be invited to visit China, "as part of a process leading to his return." Obama sent a letter in March 2008 calling on President Bush to urge China to "make significant progress in resolving the Tibet issue." Obama said Bush should press Chinese President Hu Jintao to negotiate with the Dalai Lama about his return to Tibet, to guarantee religious freedom for Tibetans, and to grant Tibet "genuine autonomy." In April 2008, Obama said President Bush should keep the option of boycotting the opening ceremony of the Olympics "firmly on the table." He said President Bush should decide to attend based on whether China takes "steps to help stop the genocide in Darfur and to respect the dignity, security, and human rights of the Tibetan people."

Obama has expressed support for the "one China" policy. In March 2008, Obama congratulated Taiwanese President-elect Ma Ying-jeou on his electoral victory, and said the government of China should respond to the election "in a positive, constructive, and forward-leaning way." He also said China should "demonstrate to the people of Taiwan that the practical and non-confrontational approach that President-elect Ma promises to take toward the Mainland will be met with good faith and progress." He called on China to build confidence with Taiwan by reducing its military deployment in southeast China, and to "allow Taiwan greater international space" in the World Health Organization.

Former Ambassador Jeffrey Bader, the Clinton administration's National Security Council Asia specialist, is a national security adviser to Obama's campaign. Bader is now the head of Brookings's John L. Thornton China center.

Click here for this candidate's position on other top foreign policy issues.

Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Democratic Party Nominee - Vice President

Sen. Biden (D-DE) subscribes to the view that the U.S. should attempt to engage and guide China. In a 2001 speech before the Asia Pacific Council of the American Chambers of Commerce, Biden said, "Our top priority should remain integrating China into the community of nations, articulating the rules of the road, and then holding the Chinese government accountable for its actions."

In 2000, Biden voted for the U.S.-China Trade Relations Act, which normalized trade relations with China.

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Republican Ticket on U.S. Policy toward China

John McCain
Republican Party Nominee - President

Sen. McCain (R-AZ) has supported a U.S. policy that will "hedge" against China's growing global influence. "That doesn't imply an effort to oppose China's emergence as an influential power, but it does mean maintaining our military presence (PDF) in East Asia, strengthening our alliance with Japan and our relations with other Asian countries, and working through groups like the APEC forum to further American interests and values," McCain said in a 2005 speech to the Committee of 100, a nonpartisan organization of Chinese Americans.

In 2000, McCain voted for the U.S.-China Trade Relations Act.

In a November 2007 Foreign Affairs essay, he wrote China could bolster its claim that it is "peacefully rising" by being more transparent about its significant military buildup and United States must legitimately question the intent of such provocative acts. "Until China moves toward political liberalization, our relationship will be based on periodically shared interests rather than the bedrock of shared values."

In a March 2008 speech, McCain said China should work "to isolate pariah states such as Burma, Sudan and Zimbabwe."

McCain said the 2008 Taiwanese presidential campaign was "testimony to the press freedoms, democratic process and the rule of law the Taiwanese people have worked so hard to build," and called Taiwan's election "a fine example for the region."

McCain denounced China's March 2008 crackdown on Tibetan protesters and urged China to "address the root causes of unrest in Tibet by opening a genuine dialogue" with the Dalai Lama. He also called on China to "ensure peaceful protest is not met with violence, to release monks and others detained for peacefully expressing their views and to allow full outside access to Tibet." McCain said he would not attend the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics if he was president unless China changes what he says are objectionable policies. "It does no service to the Chinese government, and certainly no service to the people of China, for the United States and other democracies to pretend that the suppression of rights in China does not concern us. It does, will and must concern us," said McCain in April 2008.

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Democratic Primary Candidates on U.S. Policy toward China

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Democratic Primary Candidate

Sen. Clinton focused a significant portion of her campaign rhetoric on China’s economic impact on the United States, which she says is causing “a slow erosion of our own economic sovereignty.”

In February 2007, after the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped by 416 points as a result of a “scare in the Chinese stock market,” Clinton wrote a letter to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson urging them to take action to reduce Chinese-owned debts.

She is also concerned about China’s economic practices, including the revaluation of the yuan, saying in a CNBC interview that she wants “the countries with whom we do business to have protections for intellectual property; I want them to have a rule of law that is enforceable; I want them to not manipulate their currency.” She cosponsored the Foreign Debt Ceiling Act of 2005, which would compel Congress to impose limits on U.S. foreign debt. Clinton said that bill would mean the United States could "start breaking our reliance on China for not only what they provide to us in terms of the way they buy our dollars and buy our debt but also to be held to higher standards for what they import into our market."

In April 2008, Clinton released a plan to crack down on what she called "China's unfair trade practices." The plan included measures to adjust export prices "to account for the price distortion caused by currency misalignment." She also would have considered prohibiting the U.S. federal government from purchasing products or services from China and directing U.S. banks to "pause in issuing loans to China." Clinton also said she would consider "pressuring the IMF to consult with China" and imposing a 27.5 percent tariff on all Chinese goods.

In February 2008, Clinton responded to reports that Americans had died as a result of tainted blood-thinning medication Heparin imported from China. "When will the Bush administration finally get serious about the threat of unsafe drugs, food, and consumer products from China?" she asked. Clinton said if she was elected, she would have required the Food and Drug Administration to open "oversight offices" in "at-risk countries like China."

In March 2008, Clinton congratulated Ma Ying-jeou on his election to the Taiwanese presidency, and called for "cross-Strait dialogue" to reduce tension between Taiwan and China.

Clinton has been critical of China 's human rights record as well. Throughout the campaign, Clinton touted her 1995 speech in Beijing on women's and human rights as evidence that she will not be afraid to confront the Chinese government. "The Chinese government wasn't happy; they pulled the plug on the broadcast of my speech. But I took that as a compliment. Because it was important for the United States both to be represented and to make absolutely clear that human rights is an integral part of our foreign policy and that women's rights is key to that," Clinton said in February 2008 regarding that speech.

Clinton spoke out against China's crackdown in spring 2008 on Tibetan protesters. She urged President Bush to boycott the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics "absent major changes by the Chinese government." She also commended British Prime Minister Gordon Brown for his pledge not to attend the Olympic opening ceremonies.

Editor's Note: Sen. Clinton withdrew her candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on June 7, 2008.

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Christopher J. Dodd
Democratic Primary Candidate

In late 2006, Sen. Dodd (D-CT) signed a letter asking Paulson to pressure China to stop the manipulation of the yuan which, he said, gives China a “tremendous unfair advantage in trade.”

In February 2007, Dodd said that to compensate for China ’s military growth, he believes that the defense department should significantly increase its submarine fleet (Foster’s).

Former Ambassador to China James Sasser is a co-chair of Dodd’s campaign. Sasser, who generally advocated a China policy of engagement and cooperation, served as ambassador under the Clinton presidency.

In 2000, Dodd voted for the U.S.-China Trade Relations Act.

Editor's Note: Sen. Dodd withdrew his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 3, 2008.

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John Edwards
Democratic Primary Candidate

“There is no more important relationship that America has than our relationship with China," Edwards said in a 2006 speech before the Asia Society in New York after returning from a trip to China. Edwards appears to believe that the United States must accept that China is becoming a major world power, and that its relationship with the United States does not necessarily have to be tense. In Edwards’ analysis, Chinese leaders “want the world to be a stable, relatively tranquil place” so that they can focus on further expanding their economy.

As a senator in 2000, Edwards voted for the U.S.-China Trade Relations Act, which normalized trade relations with China.

Still, in December 2007, Edwards said "big corporate America is driving American policy with respect to China." In light of recent recalls over lead concerns, Edwards said he would not buy Chinese toys for his own children.

Editor's note: Edwards dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination on January 30, 2008.

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Dennis Kucinich
Democratic Primary Candidate

Rep. Kucinich (D-OH) is critical of China ’s labor policies and human rights abuses. He voted for the Political Freedom in China Act of 1997, which provided for “improved monitoring ofhuman rights violations” in China. That bill granted $5 billion over 1998 and 1999 for the National Endowment for Democracy to help develop democracy and civil society in China.

More recently, he voted in favor of a 2006 House Resolution condemning religious persecution in China. That resolution passed in the House.

Kucinich voted against the U.S.-China Trade Relations Act of 2000, which normalized trade relations with China. Kucinich spoke out against granting China Most Favored Nation (MFN) status. Granting that status, says Kucinich, “has cost the U.S. the best leverage we have to influence China to enact worker rights, human rights, and religious rights and protections.”

In a December 2007 Democratic debate, Kucinich called for a policy of "constructive engagement" with China. He also said the United States should "stop the arms race" with China.

Editor's Note: Rep. Kucinich withdrew his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 25, 2008.

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Bill Richardson
Democratic Primary Candidate

Richardson has stressed the importance of a strong diplomatic relationship with China to ensure U.S. economic interests in the region, and has also pressed sound human rights and environmental conditions there.

Richardson said in an April 2007 speech before the Asia Society that the United States should use trade agreements with China to “incentivize human rights improvements.” In that speech, Richardson also said that the United States must be “impeccable in our own behavior” if it wants to influence China on human rights.

On China’s military modernization, Richardson said, “The best way for China to reassure its neighbors and the U.S. that it is not seeking hegemony over the region is to be transparent about what it is doing.” Richardson said the United States should invite China to assist in a large-scale plan to reduce poverty in the Middle East and North Africa. He also says that the United States should support Indian and Japanese entry into the G-8 and UN Security Council to provide “an economic counterbalance to China.”

In terms of energy, the former energy secretary said, “If I were President, I would convene an Asia Energy summit with China, India, Japan, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the United Nations Environment Program, to adopt a ten-year strategy for a major energy transition in Asia.”

Editor's Note: Richardson withdrew his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 10, 2008.

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Republican Primary Candidates on U.S. Policy toward China

Sam Brownback
Republican Primary Candidate

Sen. Brownback (R-KS) has expressed support for the Falun Gong religious group, calling for an end to what he called the “crushing governmental interference” of leaders in Beijing. In 2004, Brownback criticized inaction by the then-UN Human Rights Commission on China’s poor human rights record.

Brownback supported the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act of 2001, which increased military ties between the United States and Taiwan. Some experts raised concern that the bill would cause confrontation (People’s Daily) with China. The act never became law.

In 2000, Brownback voted for the U.S.-China Trade Relations Act.

Editor's Note: Sen. Brownback withdrew his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination on October 19, 2007.

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James S. Gilmore
Republican Primary Candidate

Gilmore’s stance is unknown.

Editor's note: Gilmore withdrew his candidacy for the Republican nomination in July 2007.

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Rudy Giuliani
Republican Primary Candidate

Giuliani has not made many public statements on his views of China during the campaign. However, Giuliani said in a CNBC interview in early 2007 that Sen. Clinton’s goal of limiting China ’s ownership of U.S. debt is “generally a bad idea and generally self-defeating.” He said that the U.S. should build industries that we can sell” in China.

In 2001, the then-mayor of New York City met with Taiwanese leader Chen Shui-bian.  At the time, Giuliani referred to Taiwan as a “remarkable country,” even though it is formally considered a territory of China.  

Editor's note: Giuliani dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 31, 2008.

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Mike Huckabee
Republican Primary Candidate

Huckabee has said that he generally is “not as concerned about China (TIME)” as he is about other more radical and threatening regimes.

Still, he said, “China needs to play by all the rules that we are expected to play by, in terms of trade, protection of intellectual property rights and the decent treatment of workers.”

In 2006, Huckabee visited Taiwan and met with President Chen Shui-bian. The National Governors Association passed a resolution supporting Taiwan in 2003, during Huckabee’s time as NGA Chairman. In 2005, Huckabee’s state of Arkansas passed a resolution commending the U.S. - Taiwan Free Trade Agreement.

Editor's Note: Huckabee withdrew his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on March 4, 2008.

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Duncan Hunter
Republican Primary Candidate

Rep. Hunter (R-CA) has long been one of the most vocal China critics in Congress. He voted against the U.S.-China Trade Relations Act of 2000, which normalized trade relations with China. In 2001, Hunter sponsored a resolution to end those normalized trade relations, though that bill did not pass. Hunter has said that China is “cheating on trade and they’re buying ships, planes, and missiles with our money, as well as taking millions of jobs.”

Hunter cosponsored the Political Freedom in China Act of 1997. He cosponsored the 2001 Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, which increased military ties between the United States and Taiwan. That bill passed.

He also cosponsored a 2005 House Resolution opposing the potential takeover of Unocal Corporation by the China National Offshore Oil Corporation.

Editor's note: Hunter dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 19, 2008.

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Ron Paul
Republican Primary Candidate

Rep. Paul (R-TX) has called China "one of the most brutal, anti-American regimes in the world." Still, Paul was one of only five representatives to vote against the Political Freedom in China Act of 1997.

Paul was also the only member of the House to vote against a 2006 resolution condemning religious persecution in China.

Paul voted against the U.S.-China Trade Relations Act of 2000, as well as the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act in 2001.

Editor's Note: Rep. Paul withdrew his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on June 12, 2008.

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Mitt Romney
Republican Primary Candidate

Romney says that the United States must "reach out to China and to chart out a course that is consistent with a free economy and a free society," according to National Review. Romney, who traveled to China at the end of 2006, said in a February 2007 speech that the U.S. must ensure that Chinese markets are open to U.S. goods, and that the Chinese "enforce our intellectual property rights as well as they enforce their own."

Editor's note: Romney dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on February 7, 2008.

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Tom Tancredo
Republican Primary Candidate

Rep. Tancredo (R-CO) is a member of the Congressional Taiwan Caucus.

In February 2007, Tancredo introduced a House resolution in support of resuming normal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. He voted for the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act in 2001.

Tancredo cosponsored a 2006 House Resolution condemning religious persecution in China. He voted against the U.S.-China Trade Relations Act of 2000. He also cosponsored a 2001 resolution, which never passed, to end those normalized trade relations in 2001.

Editor's Note: Congressman Tancredo formally withdrew his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination on December 20, 2007.

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Tommy Thompson
Republican Primary Candidate

Thompson has made few public statements on his views of China. However, in his past roles as Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) and as governor of Wisconsin, Thompson did occasionally deal with China-related issues. As HHS Secretary, Thompson and Chinese Health Minister Zhang Wenkang agreed to collaborate to stop the spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

As Governor of Wisconsin, Thompson declared March 20, 2001 Tibet Day in his state, in part to “commemorate the 41st Anniversary of the Tibetan National Uprising against the Chinese occupation of their country.”

Editor's note: Thompson dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on August 12, 2007.

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