Final Presidential Debate Ducks China

After the final U.S. presidential debate on October 22, any undecided voters who counted China as a deciding factor would most likely have been left swaying. The policies put forward by the two candidates, wrote Elizabeth M. Lynch at China Law & Policy, “were pretty much the same”, and they did not so much as touch on the sensitive territorial dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu or Senkaku islands. Mark McDonald at IHT Rendezvous explored the scarce attention paid to the Asia-Pacific region during the debate:

Many of the implications of a rising China for the United States were barely addressed by President Obama and Mitt Romney in their debate Monday night, as both candidates swung foreign policy questions back to domestic issues like jobs and education.

[…] Heated tensions between China and three American allies in the Pacific — Japan, South Korea and the Philippines — went unmentioned during the debate. The worrisome standoffs and violent protests over various disputed islands did not come up.

[…] Two weeks from now, the Chinese Communist Party will install a new group of leaders — the Standing Committee of the Politburo, with just nine members, or perhaps now seven — who will be making the major policy decisions for China over the next decade. The party congress and the leadership transition were not mentioned in the debate.

Despite Romney’s repeated threat to immediately label China a currency manipulator, examined by The Los Angeles Times’ Jim Puzzanghera, one of the few eye-catching moments was the Republican’s conciliatory tone when he stated that “we don’t have to be an adversary [with China] in any way, shape or form”. This challenged Obama’s unusually hardline reference to China as only a “potential” partner. Brian Fung at The Atlantic analyzed the rhetorical reversal between the two candidates:

The exchange between Obama and Romney was merely one of several painting the former as the hawk and the latter as the dove — an odd turn when the president is actually the one who has had to work with the Chinese on world governance while Romney, as the challenger, has had the luxury of making campaign commitments the media will forget or overlook later.

As for the way the Chinese themselves might view this exchange, the leadership in Beijing likely recognizes that in an election-year context, candidates will say things to appease domestic audiences they aren’t necessarily committed to. But one thing’s certain: The fact that the People’s Republic will be going through its own power transition just days after Americans head to the ballot box has China’s elite watching Boca Raton about as closely as the rest of us.

Zhu Feng, an expert on U.S.-China relations at Peking University, shared his views on the dynamics of China issues in the campaign with The Wall Street Journal:

In the past, the sitting president would typically have to defend his administration’s China policy against attacks from the challenger. But it seems the two of them have some sort of tacit agreement on China policy.

The only point that made Romney stand out was this so-called “labeling China a currency manipulator.” But I really doubt if that’s anything more than just election rhetoric.

The interest seems to extend well beyond officials and academics. Surveys suggest that more ordinary Chinese are watching the 2012 U.S. election than followed the 2008 race. Josh Chin at The Wall Street Journal looked into Chinese online reactions to the Monday’s debate:

“It’s a shame we can’t see the U.S. presidential debates broadcast live,” said another user. “Actually, I don’t care so much about who would be the president. I just want to learn more about the election itself. Over here, it was decided who would be next a long time ago, so there’s nothing to watch.”

[…] “What I don’t quite understand why they spend so long debating international issues in a country where 70% of people probably wouldn’t be able to locate China on the map,” said another user. “Is it because they’re not capable of solving their domestic problems and are looking for easier overseas target instead?”

[…] Chinese interest in this year’s U.S. elections appears much stronger than it was in 2008—a shift some analysts attribute to an increased interest among Chinese people in democracy. More than a third of Chinese people said they were paying close attention to this election, up from 17% during the 2008 contest, according to a Pew Research Center survey released earlier this year. The only other countries that showed rising interest in the U.S. election were Turkey and Pakistan, which both edged up 1%.

A particularly controversial aspect of the debate was the absence of human rights topics. From Evan Osnos at The New Yorker:

[T]he most surprising fact about the debate’s discussion of China—and the one that tells us the most about the new relationship taking shape the world’s two greatest powers—was that neither candidate in uttered the words, “human rights” in relation to the People’s Republic. That used to be a standard feature. On October 11, 1992, candidate Bill Clinton dinged George H. W. Bush for having “coddled” the Communist government in the years after the crackdown at Tiananmen Square. “I would be firm,” Clinton declared. “If we can stand up for our economics, we ought to be able to preserve the democratic interests of the people of China.” The next day, his campaign put out a statement denouncing the “butchers of Beijing” and faulting Bush for deciding “that we should give Most Favored Nation status to Chinese Communists, who deny their people’s basic rights.” (But, once in office, Clinton pushed through legislation making China’s Most Favored Nation status permanent, a decision he called a “principled, pragmatic approach.”)

The absence of a discussion of human rights will not go over well in the American human-rights community or with Tibetan groups. For the moment, however, in Beijing it is being greeted with pleasure. China takes careful note of vocabulary—the Foreign Ministry keeps track of the mentions of specific words—and the erosion of human rights from the candidates’ priorities will be taken as a sign, as foreign-affairs specialist Zhu Feng put it, that economic issues are “something they really care more about now than human rights or security.”

For detailed fact-checking of the final presidential debate, see ‘Romney Swaps Apology Charge With Obama Jab: Reality Check’, at Bloomberg.

See more on Sino-U.S. relations via CDT.