Since Richard Nixon “opened” China in 1972, China’s successful economic rise has placed it at the center of foreign policy discussions in the United States. Through its diverse global economy, China vies for clout in world institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and geostrategic influence in Asia, Africa, and South America. Understandably, this progression toward a world in which China could become the dominant superpower concerns many Americans.

Because China serves as a convenient boogeyman, presidential candidates have a decades-old tradition of attacking sitting presidents for their policy toward China. In the campaign of 1992, Bill Clinton attacked President George H. W. Bush for “coddling dictators” only to be similarly condemned during the 2000 campaign by George W. Bush. During the 2008 presidential campaign, then-senator Barack Obama accused George W. Bush of being “patsy” to China’s economic and political desire. But in spite of all the scolding during the election, presidential candidates tend to change their positions once they reach the White House. Politicians’ threats over China have yet to make the Chinese government nervous about the U.S. government’s intentions, but China is in the middle of its own leadership transition, so this could change. Either way, domestic pressures encourage candidates to talk tough on China no matter how dependent the United States may be on China’s continued economic prosperity. To the credit of China’s government, they have seemed to recognize that the candidates’ bravado is due mostly to election-time pressure.


In the first half of his term President Obama was criticized for being too soft on China, and critics argued that his policies helped fuel China’s geopolitical expansion in Southeast Asia as the country increased its military spending and adopted a more confrontational approach toward territorial disputes with neighbors. Mr. Obama had campaigned against China’s policy of keeping its currency artificially low in order to encourage exports and discourage imports. As president, however, he has opted for softer public and private pressure to let China’s currency appreciate.

On a geopolitical level, Mr. Obama engaged in a widely publicized “pivot” strategy toward Asia, intended to reassure America’s Southeast Asian allies that they can count on the United States’ support against China. From the American perspective, countries would join together to contain China with the United States as the keystone but without the United States having to commit significant resources to the region. The policy has multiple components ranging from shifting military assets to Eastern and Southeastern Asia, including plans to station up to 60 percent of all naval forces in the Pacific, an increase of 10 percent.  On the diplomatic side, America has joined the East Asia Summit, interceded on the South China Sea, opened a connection to Myanmar, and worked on improving relations between the United States, Australia, and India. Economically, the United States has ratified a free trade agreement with South Korea and signed the framework agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The pivot seems to have slowed China’s expansion of power in the region and has been cautiously welcomed by foreign- policy analysts.


Much as Mr. Obama did four years ago, Governor Mitt Romney has pledged to instruct the Treasury to treat China as a currency manipulator if given the chance, in addition to slapping intellectual property sanctions on China until the Chinese government responds to business concerns about the safety of intellectual property designs of goods produced in China. Mr. Romney  would  end  American  government procurement — which ensures that nations can compete on an  equal  basis  for  government  contracts — from  Chinese firms until the Chinese government opens up its procurement process  to American  firms. Furthermore, he would allow Taiwan to buy as many weapons from the United States as it likes. Mr. Obama, on the other hand, has allowed Taiwan to upgrade its existing weapons stock without buying new arms. This is significant because of the complex relationship between Taiwan, known as the Republic of China (ROC), and mainland China, known as the People’s Republic of China (PRC). After the Chinese civil war, the communist-led PRC took control of mainland China and founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949. At that time, the ROC government moved to Taiwan. In 1971, the PRC assumed China’s seat at the United Nations, and international recognition of Taiwan has gradually decreased to 23 countries.

Mr. Romney does not oppose the geopolitical pivot strategy, but argues that it should be strengthened and that if elected he would increase the amount of money the United States devotes to ships and the military.  Whether Mr. Romney is elected or Mr. Obama is reelected, foreign policy toward China is likely to remain the same. Mr. Romney talks tough about China now, but it is likely he will backtrack from his campaign promises on China much as Mr. Obama did after 2008.

-This article was written by Ted Mateoc and appears in full in The IDEA Guide to the 2012 U.S. Presidential Elections.