HONG KONG — Earlier this month, when Washington announced the sale of a $6.5 billion arms package to Taiwan, China reacted with anger. It has canceled a series of military and diplomatic contacts with the United States, including port calls by naval vessels, and indefinitely postponed meetings on halting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Meanwhile, John McCain and Barack Obama, candidates in the U.S. presidential election, both issued statements supporting the arms sale. McCain went even further and said the U.S. should have included additional major items, such as submarines and F-16s, that Taiwan wants and that he said would produce “tens of thousands” of jobs.
This was one of the few moments in this year’s presidential election campaign where China figured. For the most part, however, China has been a nonissue, with the two candidates focusing on other issues, primarily the economy.
At the last of the three debates between the two men, China was only mentioned in passing when Obama said: “Nothing is more important than us no longer borrowing $700 billion or more from China and sending it to Saudi Arabia. It’s mortgaging our children’s future.”
The economy is such a major issue that it overshadows everything else. But another reason why China isn’t a campaign issue is that both the Democrat and the Republican candidates have advisers who are extremely knowledgeable and realize that there is very little the U.S. can do to change China without doing major damage to itself.
This reflects a maturity in the relationship, which marks its 30th anniversary in January. In fact, ever since the U.S. and China established diplomatic relations in 1979, Beijing has figured in American domestic politics, especially in presidential elections.
Thus, in the first election after normalization, Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan announced that he would re-establish official relations with Taiwan — something that would jeopardize the newly established relationship with China. Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter, who had normalized relations with Beijing, but after his inauguration, Reagan decided that China was far more important than Taiwan.
In 1992, when George H.W. Bush was campaigning for re-election, he was attacked by Democratic candidate Bill Clinton for “coddling butchers from Baghdad to Beijing.” This was the first election after the Tiananmen Square military crackdown of 1989, and Bush was vulnerable because of the priority he gave to American relations with Beijing.
Clinton tried to link China’s human rights performance with its most-favored nation trading status, but that policy proved a dismal failure and eventually he was forced to deal with China as it is, not as he wanted it to be.
In fact, Clinton’s policy changed to such an extent that, in his second term, he wanted to turn China into a strategic partner. So when George W. Bush launched his presidential campaign in 2000, he made it clear that he opposed Clinton’s China policy, declaring that China was more of a strategic competitor than a strategic partner.
But Bush’s China policy also changed after his inauguration, especially after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. Then he realized that China could be a partner in his war on terrorism and did not necessarily have to become an adversary like the former Soviet Union.
So, after three decades and five presidents, America’s China policy has zigged and zagged but has now reached a situation where both parties acknowledge that the U.S.-China relationship is critical and may well be the most important bilateral relationship in the world.
That does not mean that McCain and Obama would have identical policies toward China. Obama, like other Democrats, tend to be more protectionist while McCain and Republicans generally are more supportive of free trade.
In addition, McCain may be more hawkish. He has spoken about forging a league of democracies, including such countries as Japan, South Korea, India and Australia. If that happened, it would certainly be viewed by China as an attempt at containing it.
Obama has spoken forcefully about the need to confront China on such things as trade and, in particular, the value of its currency, which he says is artificially undervalued to give an unfair advantage to Chinese exports.
So, regardless of who wins Nov. 4, America’s relationship with China is likely to gets rocky on occasion, but this by now is par for the course. The overall relationship is unlikely to be seriously affected because it has become so important to both countries.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator (Frank.firstname.lastname@example.org).