obama-romney-china-foreign-policy-debateThough Mitt Romney and President Obama painstakingly attempted to illuminate their differences throughout the third presidential debate, their respective commentaries on the rise of China revealed the similarities between the two candidates. Both candidates lamented the American jobs shipped to China and both lambasted the Chinese for supposedly defying the rules of the global economy.

While much of the chest-thumping rhetoric can be attributed to the nature of modern American presidential campaigns, the use of China as a scapegoat for our anemic recovery and the accusations of “cheating” and “rule-breaking” are dangerous developments. The rhetoric of this campaign, in addition to recent developments in the economic and military spheres, may herald a tumultuous future for Sino-American relations.

The Obama administration has already sought to increase the U.S. presence in Asia through military, diplomatic, and economic strategies. Unfortunately, many of these measures have been conducted in a decidedly antagonistic nature. The Obama administration’s “Pacific Pivot” has increased tensions in the South China Sea and has placed many smaller countries in Asia in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between allying themselves with Beijing or Washington.

To be fair, the renewed military engagement in Asia has been accompanied by a surge in diplomatic efforts; however, many of these efforts have been focused on developing regional allies as counterweights to China. Throughout June of this year, President Obama hosted the president of the Philippines; Defense Secretary Leon Panetta toured Vietnam, Singapore, and India; and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hosted representatives from India, Thailand, Cambodia, and South Korea.

Despite the ongoing militarization of the region, the most dramatic clashes between the United States and China have been economic. The negotiations surrounding the Trans-Pacific Partnership reflect a U.S. desire to entrench itself as an economic power in the region. Thus far Brunei, Singapore, Vietnam, and Malaysia are members of the trade agreement, while South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines have expressed interest in joining. The whole project represents a U.S. challenge to Chinese economic ambitions in the region.

President Obama has leveled a host of accusations at China, accusing the country of not “playing by the same rules,” asserting that the American jobs lost to China reflected an uneven “playing field.” Mitt Romney took an even more aggressive tone in the final debate, repeating his oft-heard promise to label China a currency manipulator on “day one” of his presidency, enabling the United States to level retaliatory tariffs against China. Romney went so far as to assert that there was a “silent trade war” already underway with China.

Throughout the campaign, both candidates have demonstrated their commitment to disregarding fundamental aspects of international trade, such as the fact that when a capital-rich country (like the United States) engages in trade with a labor-abundant country (like China), the capital-rich country will lose jobs in labor-intensive industries (like low-skill manufacturing). While it is true that some Chinese companies have abused American intellectual property rights—and that the Chinese government may have suppressed the value of its currency—to suggest that these violations are a driving force behind the loss of U.S. jobs is like blaming the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The differences between the two candidates’ positions, while subtle, are important. President Obama, for better or worse, has demonstrated a commitment to making America a “Pacific power” in the holistic sense of the word. Mitt Romney has taken an antagonistic stance towards China and, in the final debate, seemed hell-bent on making the “silent trade war” between the United States and China a very loud and expensive confrontation.

It is important to note that the inflamed American rhetoric is matched by the Chinese, who are engaged in their own political process. When Americans enter the voting booth on November 6th—to choose between continued military, economic, and diplomatic pressure or a more rapid confrontation—we will be sending a message to the Chinese as to the future of Sino-American relations.

Hilary Matfess is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus.

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