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.
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.