Xi-Obama meeting will set fresh tone despite campaign rhetoric

By Robert A. Manning Source:Global Times Published: 2015-7-16 0:38:02

It hasn't happened yet. But as we begin to get into the thick of the long US presidential campaign, also known as the "Silly Season," it's expected that China will emerge as a central issue and reliable political punching bag for a crowded field of candidates where there are already 16 Republicans and five Democrats.

At a moment when the US economic recovery and low unemployment (5.3 percent) make it difficult to attack the recent Democratic record on economic issues which matter most to US voters, Republicans see the Democrats as vulnerable on foreign policy. They are unhappy with Obama's withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, inconsistent policies toward the Syrian conflict, failure to destroy IS, and eagerness to compromise with Iran on its nuclear program.

This brings us to China. Who can be "tougher" on China is a familiar US electoral theme. Current concerns about alleged Chinese hacking and Bejing's activities in the South China Sea will fuel the debate.

Historically, there has tended to be little correlation between a candidate's political rhetoric about China and the actual policy toward China he adopts when he becomes president. In 1992, Bill Clinton used China as a club against George HW Bush. In the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen incident, Clinton attacked Bush for the administration's efforts to stabilize the relationship, arguing that the US must be "tougher" on human rights. Initially, Clinton's attitude carried over into his presidency in the US debate over supporting China's entry into the World Trade Organization and whether to condition US policy toward China on its human rights practices.

But after that early controversy, Clinton backed off, and adopted a China policy very much along the lines of what has been a consistent, bipartisan US policy toward China since former president Richard Nixon's 1971 opening of relations - cooperate where possible, help China integrate into the global economy, and manage differences.

This reflects the reality that the US-China relationship is a large, multi-dimensional, and complex one between the world's two largest economies (almost $600 billion in trade in 2014), two largest energy consumers, and powers who face mutual global problems from climate change to pandemics.

But there may be a difference in 2016. Cyber security, China's land reclamation in the South China Sea and bolder assertion of Beijing's role as a major power has led many to question core assumptions underpinning US policy toward China. A number of US think tank reports in recent weeks advocate different policy courses from more accommodation to containment, and call for a reassessment of US policy toward China. Among the authors are many who will serve in the next US administration. But regardless of what policy changes they advocate, they all begin from the premise that current US policy is inadequate.

Some of the views beginning to be expressed by presidential candidates reflect this sense that the US must rethink its response to the challenge from a rising China. Whether the upcoming silly season rhetoric remains just that or whether it really is different this time, and foreshadows increasing US-China tensions will depend on events.

The September state visit to the US of Chinese President Xi Jinping may play an important role in determining whether or not US-China relations regain a positive trajectory. If the Xi-Obama Summit can demonstrate progress on the cyber issue, on a bilateral investment treaty and show Sino-US cooperation on major issues like the turmoil in the Middle East and North Korea nuclear program, it would change the debate in the US. But it is by no means a certainty that today's US campaign rhetoric will remain in the realm of political theater.

 The author is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He served as a member of the US Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008, and on the National Intelligence Council from 2008-12. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn. Follow him on Twitter at @Rmanning4.

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