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Elizabeth Economy’s Wish List for the upcoming Romney-Obama Debate on China and Foreign Policy

Elizabeth Economy (of Council on Foreign Relations) made a list of topics for the upcoming Romney-Obama debate in hopes for a better American public discourse on China. With both of their campaigns almost competing to see who can be more harsh in criticizing China, Americans are polarized more than ever on this critical relationship, and Economy is right that there needs to be a more thoughtful conversation. While I applaud her efforts, I think her list still leaves a lot to be desired. For conflicts between the two countries to truly dissipate, the issues must be couched in terms both sides recognize. In this post, I offer alternative framing of the issues and explain why.

Elizabeth Economy’s List

My critique and alternative narrative

China has a seat on the UN Security Council, the world’s second largest economy, and one of the world’s largest standing armies. Yet it remains reluctant to assume a leading role in addressing global challenges. How can the next U.S. President ensure that China works with the United States and does its fair share to meet the world’s most pressing global problems? Let’s take a step back.  Majority of the population on this planet thought NATO’s bombing of Libya was illegal.  Americans should first recognize China not supportive of regime change or other U.S.-led geopolitical moves does not automatically mean China not wanting to “assume a leading role in addressing global challenges.”

Americans are not interested in China ‘leading’ per se, but they would probably acquiesce to China truly leading as long as in doing so brings Americans tangible benefits.

Let’s also look at world institutions such as the World Bank.  Unless America let go and give countries like China a chance to preside over it, how is it China to lead it?

Consider the International Space Station where the U.S. habitually block efforts for China to participate, how can it be possible for China to assume leadership there?

China in fact has increasingly been playing a ‘leading’ role, though the American media never bother to offer such a narrative.

During the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, it was China not devaluing her currency which stemmed the complete collapse of other countries’ currencies in the region.

The African continent is finally growing because of trade with China.  China is helping it build much needed infrastructure, schools, and hospitals.

China leads by example in pulling hundreds of millions of her people out of poverty.

So, I would phrase the issue differently as follows:

How can the next U.S. President ensure that China aligns better with the United States?

This is essentially what Economy wants to say and what Americans really want.  At least it is honest and not so presumptive.

China’s economy is widely anticipated to become the largest in the world—surpassing that of the United States—within the next five to ten years. What difference, if any, do you expect that will make in the U.S.-China bilateral relationship and in global economic relations? Her narrative appeals to anxiety.  Perhaps I am being nit-picky.   A better way to frame the issue might be:

Being the largest economy, what sort of advantage does the United States enjoy over China?  Will China wrestle those advantages away as her economy overtakes ours, and as President, what would you do to preserve them?

In the past several months, a number of conflicts have flared up in the Asia Pacific between China and its neighbors. Some have blamed the U.S. pivot for emboldening actors in the region to take provocative actions. Mr. President, is this growing regional tension an outcome you anticipated or did you miscalculate? What further steps would you take to help decrease tensions? Governor Romney, you have asserted that the pivot was oversold and under-resourced. Please explain what you would do differently as president. Remember though, conflicts between Japan and her neighbors have flared up too.  Look at the on-going dispute with South Korea over Dokdo/Takeshima and with Russia on the Kuril Islands.

So, the way this question is framed paints China as the sole problem within the region.  It is helping to further cement into the American psyche that the pivot is targeted at China only.  Publicly, the Obama administration has said that is not the case.

A better way to ask would be:

Mr. President, what do you wish to accomplish with the pivot?  What should the Americans expect, results wise, in 1, 5, and 10 years?  Governor Romney, you have asserted that the pivot was oversold and under-resourced.  What is your goal and are your expected results different from the president’s?  What would you do differently?

China has achieved extraordinary economic success with a one-party authoritarian system that continues to limit many of the basic human rights that we in the United States value and have fought for throughout the world. Does China present a credible alternative development model for other countries? Does this pose an existential threat to U.S. standing abroad? First of all, Economy is likely ignorant about human rights.  The United States or the West certainly do not have monopoly over the idea.  When the idea is espoused, it is usually in the context of justifying the West’s geopolitics.  I’d like to remind our readers a number of excellent articles on this topic featured on the right side of the blog.  (See, for example, ‘s “On Human Rights, Intervention and the International Order.”)

I certainly hope both candidates say China’s alternative development model does not automatically pose “existential threat to U.S. standing abroad.”  If America is so convinced her political system epitomizes the height of human civilization, then be confident in due time the world over will copy it.

In fact, “democratic” countries like India more often voted the same way as China (often in opposition to the United States) in the U.N. when it comes to “human rights” issues.  So, what does that mean?  “Human rights” in the name of politics is politics, and people outside the United States can see through them.

Chinese leaders have always said China is willing to consult with the United States on improving true human rights.

If America wants to be viewed more as a leader on the global stage, she must continue to work towards a more just and humane world.  She should constructively lead our world in combating climate change and push forward renewable energy.  If China does more of it in the course of her development, then she will naturally garner more respect.  In turn, more countries will follow in her foot-steps.

Americans should ask themselves: if Germany in the coming generation becomes the new hegemonic power, would they consider the country an “existential threat to U.S. standing abroad?”  Would U.S. response be?

The danger that confronts all of us humans in modern times is no different than the past: too many of us believe our religion is inherently ‘good’ while non-believers are automatically ‘evil.’  In the case of “democracy,” “human rights,” and “freedom” religions, the believer and non-believer camps are in fact mostly contrived.  We are all believers and practitioners of them in varying degrees.  The qualitative differences over them across societies has much more to do with history and unique local circumstances.

Instead, I would ask:

Does China present a credible alternative development model for other countries?  If so, what new challenges will emerge for the United States?  Would those challenges still exist if China evolves into a multi-party state?

  1. no-name
    October 21st, 2012 at 02:21 | #1

    US foreign policy is nothing but a veritable can of worms but regarding the Asian financial crisis of 1997-8 there is an article at http://www.scribd.com/doc/54790012 which no civilised person fed up with ‘foreign policies’ should miss a read.

  2. October 21st, 2012 at 04:57 | #2

    Nicely presented. I observe neither candidate is bashing China over Tibet, Taiwan, XinJiang nor No Korea at this time. Instead they are using the latent raciism in America to deflect attention from US economic mismanagement. ie, “Hey, Mikey! Let’s blame China!”

  3. N.M.Cheung
    October 21st, 2012 at 08:18 | #3

    The article is well thought but I do think it’s an exercise of futility. The U.S. presidential debtaes are not interested in facts or truths but billion dollars of lies and half truths propagandas in key states. China can’t help but be the punching bag for the fears and bias of both parties. In today’s NY Times Sunday Review there is a news analysis by Scott Shane titled “The Opiate of Exceptionalism” which best described what the debates are about. To me the debates are symbol of “American Styled Democracy” which most Chinese are ignorant of; empty rhetoric, promises, and lies like mirages of hope and change. What irks me most are the snark remarks about the Chinese leadership being Princelings which the Kennedys and Bushes are never described as. For to me Xi is someone who was tested in 30 years of gradually working up from local to township to provinces and central government. The Chinese college entrance exam is notorious being strict with 20 points added (10 points for half Han) for minority nationality. No princeling can fake their score unlike Bush can enter Harvard being a legacy entry. Their affirmative action being honest unlike U.S. where ideology and quota gave Clarence Thomas entry to Supreme Court which he’s eminently unqualified. Obama rested his presidency not for his hard work but flowery speech and opportunistic time and entitlement. The Western media consider the Chinese leadership change as opaque and appointed by elders, maybe they can learn something from China in that as well. For me American Styled Democracy is best symbolized by the Citizen United decision that money is free speech.

  4. October 21st, 2012 at 23:50 | #4

    @Kathy
    Interesting observation. Remember Bill Clinton’s remark, “it’s the economy, stupid.” Perhaps the candidates think they are better served to tie everything they say back to economy and jobs. It’s indeed interesting those other issues are off the table for the time being.

    @N.M.Cheung
    On exercise of futility . . . yeah, there are times I do feel exactly that. More often than not, I am reminded there are China ‘experts’ on either side of the Pacific who do read this blog, Western journalists included. That community of people is actually not so big and words do get around. Just couple of weeks ago, I got an email from a Western journalist he was forwarded an article on HH.

  5. October 22nd, 2012 at 13:59 | #5

    @N.M.Cheung
    Japan, followed by Korea have the worse hereditery tradition in politics among the developed countries.

    Of course the US and Japan have no “pricelings”, that term is coined in China. It actually showed a much more critical view of Chinese on hereditery politics. The netizens human flesh search of corrupt official is a manifest of that feeling. Nevertheless, there are still much room for improvement.

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