HONG KONG – During the American presidential campaign of 2008, China was virtually a nonissue. During the televised debates between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, China was barely mentioned.
This year, however, things are different. Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, has made China a major campaign issue, promising if elected to label China a currency manipulator on the first day of his presidency.
Now he has picked as his vice presidential nominee a congressman, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who is not known for his foreign policy credentials but who immediately stomped on President Obama by calling him China’s “doormat.”
While the Obama administration has strongly criticized Chinese economic policies, it has held back from calling the country a currency manipulator, a finding that could result in trade sanctions.
Chinese spokesmen call Romney’s charges “irresponsible” and warn that making Sino-American ties a campaign issue “will bring only harm.” Officially Romney promises to “implement a strategy that makes the path of regional hegemony for China far more costly than the alternative path of becoming a responsible partner in the international system.”
China is a very sensitive issue for Americans, as reflected in the emotional bipartisan reaction to the announcement that the American team’s Olympic uniforms were made in China, with Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s calling for their burning.
Beijing has attempted to maintain a neutral stance in the election, which it views as an internal American affair. However, it is likely to feel more comfortable with a second Obama term than a Romney presidency.
China’s apprehension of a Romney administration extends beyond bilateral relations. The Republican’s recent visit to Britain, Israel and Poland to burnish his foreign policy credentials also created anxiety in Beijing, in particular because of his remarks on the Middle East.
The official Xinhua news agency, in a commentary, warned: “U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s statement that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel is likely to worsen the already tense Mideast situation, and even reignite a war between Palestinians and Israelis.”
Romney also said the U.S. Embassy should be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Although Israel considers Jerusalem its capital, most countries do not recognize this status and the United Nations maintains that Jerusalem should be an international city.
Actually, as Xinhua recognized, the U.S. Congress in 1995 passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which states that the American embassy should move to Jerusalem. But every president elected since then has refused to implement the law.
Xinhua reported that “Romney stubbornly vowed to carry out this law, which, if translated into action, will cause international concerns.” By labeling Romney’s utterances as “dangerous words,” Xinhua has made it plain that the Chinese government does not wish to see him become president.
Of course, China should be aware that candidates make pledges during campaigns that they do not carry out as president.
For example, only months after the United States and China formally established diplomatic relations in 1979, Ronald Reagan announced his intention to run for president. The candidate declared that, if elected, he would restore official relations with “the Republic of China” (Taiwan). Reagan did not follow through on the pledge after he became president.
Bill Clinton, when campaigning in 1992, castigated the incumbent, George H.W. Bush, for “coddling the butchers of Beijing” and promised to link China’s trade status to its human rights performance. As president he abandoned this policy after a year.
Similarly, George W. Bush entered office seeing China as a “strategic competitor” and promising to do “whatever it took” to help defend Taiwan. He ended up publicly reprimanding Taiwan leader Chen Shui-bian with the Chinese premier at his side.
So, Beijing should not read too much into what candidate Romney is saying about Jerusalem — or about China.
It should recall that American politicians tend to behave quite differently when president than as presidential candidates.
But, understandably, Beijing would prefer not to have to go through a year or two of waiting for a new president to learn the facts of diplomatic life before returning to the course maintained by every American leader since Richard Nixon.
The widely publicized release of a new documentary, “Death by China,” which depicts China as a knife plunging deep into the heart of the U.S., suggests that Beijing will be the target of attacks by both American political parties in the months leading up to the election in November.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator. Email: Frank.firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @FrankChing1