from Asia Unbound

What We Need to Hear From the Candidates on China

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney listens to U.S. President Barack Obama during the second U.S. presidential campaign debate in Hempstead, New York, on October 16, 2012.

October 19, 2012

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney listens to U.S. President Barack Obama during the second U.S. presidential campaign debate in Hempstead, New York, on October 16, 2012.
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A few weeks back I explored the quality of the China debate in the Presidential campaign and found it sadly lacking. The campaigns have targeted China as a critical issue, but not in a way that elevates the discourse. China-bashing television ads and debate over whose pension fund has Chinese companies in its portfolio are not going to help the American people understand who would better manage U.S.-China relations and China’s rise. As a result, I raised a number of potential issues I thought might help answer this question.

Now with the foreign policy debate just a few days away, I see that the moderator Bob Schieffer has selected “The rise of China and tomorrow’s world” as one of the five central topics for the debate. The somewhat awkward-sounding but bold title has reinforced my sense that the candidates need to be pushed out of their comfort zones to address the more strategic challenges that China is likely to present.

Here are four questions I think might help force a bigger picture debate:

  • China has a seat on the UN Security Council, the world’s second largest economy, and one of the world’s largest standing armies. Yet it remains reluctant to assume a leading role in addressing global challenges. How can the next U.S. President ensure that China works with the United States and does its fair share to meet the world’s most pressing global problems?

  • China’s economy is widely anticipated to become the largest in the world—surpassing that of the United States—within the next five to ten years. What difference, if any, do you expect that will make in the U.S.-China bilateral relationship and in global economic relations?

  • In the past several months, a number of conflicts have flared up in the Asia Pacific between China and its neighbors. Some have blamed the U.S. pivot for emboldening actors in the region to take provocative actions. Mr. President, is this growing regional tension an outcome you anticipated or did you miscalculate?  What further steps would you take to help decrease tensions? Governor Romney, you have asserted that the pivot was oversold and under-resourced. Please explain what you would do differently as president.

  • China has achieved extraordinary economic success with a one-party authoritarian system that continues to limit many of the basic human rights that we in the United States value and have fought for throughout the world. Does China present a credible alternative development model for other countries? Does this pose an existential threat to U.S. standing abroad?

Frankly, I am glad that unlike the Middle East, China is not reeling from one crisis to another, while the United States struggles to find effective policy tools. China does not provide safe haven for terrorists and it did not trigger the global financial crisis. For the purposes of the presidential debate on foreign policy, that makes China appear a second tier issue.

Still, China may well pose a far more serious strategic challenge to the United States and the global system. Chinese officials have called for the world to move away from the dollar as its reserve currency, challenged U.S. notions of good governance throughout the world, and blocked U.S. initiatives to address crises in Syria and Iran. All of this makes China an issue of paramount importance for the presidential debate. Let’s hope that Mr. Schieffer can push the candidates to take the issue and the American people seriously enough to aim for profound rather than petty.

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