Platitudes galore on ‘frenemy’ China
October 23rd, 2012
12:43 PM ET

Platitudes galore on ‘frenemy’ China

By Kelley Currie, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Kelley Currie is a senior fellow with the Project 2049 Institute in Washington. The views expressed are her own.

Given the harsh critiques of President Barack Obama’s China policy by the Romney campaign, including the candidate himself, there was a reasonable expectation that the section of the foreign policy debate dealing with these issues would produce some fireworks. Observers were likely disappointed, however, by the appearance of two candidates who tried to outdo each other in claiming that they would get tough on China while simultaneously building a better partnership with it.

While it would be unrealistic to expect in-depth analysis given the debate’s time and political constraints, it is unfortunate neither candidate took the opportunity to go beyond platitudes in discussing the extraordinary political, economic, strategic and ideational challenges that a rising, increasingly wealthy authoritarian China poses to U.S. interests. Instead there was more of the cognitive dissonance that has come to characterize U.S. policy toward our “frenemy” China. This problem was perhaps best illustrated by President Obama referring to China as both an “adversary” and a partner of the United States in the same sentence. Governor Romney likewise missed an opportunity to critique this awkward formulation using the points raised by his Asia policy advisor Aaron Friedberg in recent articles.  Neither candidate talked about human rights issues, either with regard to China’s egregious record at home, nor its equally problematic role in undermining them internationally.

While the Obama policy on China over the last two years has been an improvement over its initial naïve incarnation, the internal structural contradictions of U.S.-China relations weaken our policy effectiveness and unintentionally reinforce the Chinese leadership’s most paranoid ideas about the U.S. posture. The Obama administration’s much-discussed “pivot to Asia” is viewed in Beijing as a thinly disguised effort at containment that no amount of strategic dialoguing, rhetorical partnerships and people-to-people exchanges can obscure. In fact, the more enthusiastically the Obama administration talks about “partnership,” while simultaneously acting to strengthen historic U.S. alliances in the region and realign our force posture in the Pacific, the less credible the Chinese – especially the People’s Liberation Army – find assertions that we are not seeking to contain or thwart China’s rise. It is essentially a negative feedback loop.

Analysis: Obama landed more punches

In addition to dropping the “happy talk” that characterizes official pronouncements on U.S.-China relations, realigning strategic postures and enhancing the focus on regional trade and economic engagement, the next U.S. president will need to think carefully about China’s political future and how it is increasingly intertwined with our own.

Worryingly, China policy in the United States and other Western liberal democracies often seems more invested in preserving China’s authoritarian system than in seeing it replaced by something more liberal and genuinely representative of the political will of the Chinese people. As the tumultuous ongoing political transition in China has shown, there is no guarantee that China’s increasingly anachronistic Communist rulers can or will remain at the commanding heights while Chinese society grows more diverse, sophisticated and demanding.

With recent polling showing growing Chinese support for “American style democracy” despite more than six decades of regime propaganda against this idea, there is clearly an opportunity for an American leadership that is willing to engage the Chinese government and people about democracy, pluralism and human rights. Playing such a role in support of China’s political evolution and having a plan for what comes next is not a provocation; it is smart policy.

For U.S. policymakers, it ultimately comes down to the fact that most of our problems with China are a direct result of our divergent political systems, which lead the American and Chinese governments to hold different political values and worldviews. This divergence is deep and largely irreconcilable: as long as China remains an authoritarian state and the United States remains a liberal democracy, friction and conflict are inevitable. Any American president, or presidential candidate, who fails to acknowledge this root problem, and confront its consequences, will continually find his or her China policy falling short – both in terms of its effectiveness and its understanding by the American people.

By contrast, the leader who is able to find the correct balance of cooperation with and support for the Chinese people and – dare we say – confrontation in dealing with the inappropriate actions of China’s authoritarian party-state, will not only better secure American interests, but will also be helping China to secure a freer future.

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Topics: 2012 Election • Asia • Barack Obama • China • Mitt Romney • United States

soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. Patrick

    Why should this surprise anyone at all? idiots like Barack Obama and Mitt Romney would blame China for our own economic mismanagement here at home! All these bozoes know is how to "get tough" on China! What bumbling idiots these two are!

    October 23, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Reply
  2. 100 % ETHIO

    "Horses and Bayonets". (Laughters).

    I did not know, Governor Romney (RollMoney), invested on China Oil Company, while US and the rest of the World are prohibited trade with Iran.

    Anyway, I am not decided yet whom I am going to vote. The Presidential debates, never convinced me. They are just wasting their times.
    They both have left on SICK-LEAVE or ABSENT, until the last election day.

    October 23, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Reply
  3. matt

    The Chinese have carte blanche in U.S.-Sino relations.

    They are most assidiously acquiring mining and energy rights at will. Do they want to bring us to our knees? Evidence seems to support that.

    How about the Russians. . . .you know, the silent gang that Mr Romney talked about last night?

    Mr President: WAKE UP! We're about to lose our shirts–and then some.

    October 23, 2012 at 7:24 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      Good griet matt, get serious! Why would China want to bring us to our knees in the first place? We are their biggest debtors and that helps them enormously. Actually, the only reason we'll lose our shirts is because of all this unnecessary and excessive military spending which Romney wants to expand further if elected!

      October 24, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    It takes time for China to evolve from an one-party autocratic system to a more pluralistic such. The coming once-in-a-decade transition of power will signal the direction of the new leadership. There's hope that in the next two decades China would catch up with Taiwan or Hong Kong.

    October 24, 2012 at 7:10 am | Reply
  5. UHHH

    That's all American politicians know how to do... blame someone else, sad... Instead of coming up with real solutions that will solve rel problems, like the 15 trillion and growing debt. CUR MORE OF THE INDUSTRIAL MILITARY COMPLEX OFF!!!

    October 24, 2012 at 11:45 am | Reply

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