During Monday night’s presidential debate, the candidates beat their breasts vying to be tougher on China. Barack Obama pointed to his accomplishments, while Mitt Romney attacked the president for being afraid to label China a currency manipulator. The amount of time devoted to America’s largest creditor and potential enemy shows that managing the relationship with China is critical for whoever sits in the Oval Office.
Thousands miles away across the Pacific, China, also facing leadership change, is largely indifferent to the debate, at least on the surface. The Chinese official media have been mocking the candidates’ stances on China and suggesting their audience shouldn’t take the anti-China talk seriously. Even Chinese dissidents are not impressed. Everyone understands that what is said before November 7 is just campaign rhetoric.
The Chinese Communist regime can afford to ignore the talk because it knows it already has the United States by the nose. Not only does the United States need China for iPhones and cheap toys, it also needs China’s money to finance the debt and its strategic cooperation in Iran and North Korea as well as in the South China Sea. Whoever ends up in the White House will have no choice but to work with China.
The dissidents in particular have heard tough talk before. It tends to fade away once a candidate is in office, leaving the dissident community disappointed.
Shockingly absent from the debate was any mention of human rights in China and any discussion of America’s long-term strategic concerns. By almost any accounting, China’s human rights record has worsened over the last four years. President Obama, like his predecessor, has treated strategic economic cooperation with China as paramount, even as China remains the only country in the world to have a Nobel Peace Prize winner sitting in jail. Liu Xiaobo, awarded the prize in 2010, is serving an 11-year prison term for peacefully advocating constitutional reform. Thousands of other prisoners of conscience have disappeared behind the bamboo curtain.
But the candidates’ failures of omission are not a matter of party. Both failed to present either a geopolitical or a moral grand strategy toward China. The key questions are, what is China’s endgame, and can China rise peacefully? China seeks hegemony in the region and in the world; it has a clear goal of overtaking America by the middle of this century. Given these differing visions of the future, clashing national interests, and disparate values and political systems, China’s rise is not likely to be peaceful. Some sort of conflict or war between the United States and China is inevitable; the closer China comes to catching up with America, the more likely the two countries will clash.
The U.S. strategic pivot to Asia is good, but without a clear strategic goal and sufficient resources it won’t work. Neither tough talk on the currency nor all the trade complaints in the WTO will make a bit of difference in the overall scheme of things. Of course, China has been manipulating its currency, but labeling it a manipulator alone won’t shrink the trade deficit, nor will it return jobs to America.
The reason is simple: A totalitarian regime like China manipulates everything. China can do this and get away with it because the Clinton administration (with strong Republican support in the Congress) granted China permanent Normal Trade Relations in 2000, which effectively allowed trade with China to trump all other U.S. strategic concerns. This was done despite President Clinton’s strident campaign promises to the human rights community to get tough on China.
The United States still has huge leverage over China, but that leverage is shrinking: China needs our markets for its exports, it needs our technology, and, despite its own ambitions, it still relies on the United States to lead with respect to global financial markets and world politics. Unfortunately, neither Democrats nor Republicans have the wisdom or courage to use this country’s influence to political or economic advantage for the United States.
Confucius said that anyone who can’t see the future can hardly avoid troubles in the present. If the U.S. presidential candidates could see through the layers of the Chinese Communist regime’s lies, they would realize that the only policy option for America is to use whatever leverage we have to push China gradually and in an orderly fashion toward democracy. Anything short of that is likely to mean disaster for America and the world. The specter of China as a true world power may be sobering, but we should be even more concerned about a China in chaos.
Few believed Winston Churchill when he warned of the danger posed by the rise of Nazi Germany. The world preferred to trust Hitler’s declaration that he did not intend to wage a war of aggression. That blind trust led to catastrophe and at least 60 million deaths. On November 7, the American people should elect the candidate who has the better grasp of the realities within China and can shepherd U.S. policies so as to capitalize on those realities.
Lianchao Han is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute, working on the institute's Future of Innovation Initiative.