China is becoming a major campaign issue in the U.S. presidential election with both President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney competing over who can be tougher. In a Q&A, Paul Haenle explains that, since the 1980s, U.S. presidential candidates have demonized China on the campaign trail in order to distinguish themselves from previous administrations only to tone down critiques and seek cooperation with China once in office. The same is likely this year, but this doesn’t mean that the trend will not have damaging ramifications on bilateral relations in the future.


When it comes to China, has there been a big difference between rhetoric on the campaign trail and policy implementation?

Since the normalization of relations with China in the late 1970s, there is a clear pattern. In almost every U.S. presidential campaign, candidates, once in office, made decisions that ran counter to the positions advocated during their presidential campaign.

As it turns out, presidential candidates felt they initially needed to be tough on China in order to criticize or emphasize policy distinctions with the incumbent president.

How did words and action on China differ during the Reagan and Bush administrations in the 1980s and early 1990s?

Paul Haenle
Paul Haenle holds the Maurice R. Greenberg Director’s Chair at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and is a visiting senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore. He served as the White House China director on the National Security Council staffs of former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
More >

Going back to the 1980 Republican primary, both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush criticized the incumbent president Jimmy Carter on China. Reagan was one of the most outspoken supporters of Taiwan in American politics and, as such, was extremely critical of Carter’s decision to follow through with the official normalization of relations with China in 1978.

During the 1980 presidential campaign, Reagan stressed that if elected president, he “would not betray friends and allies” as the Carter administration had. In fact, on several occasions, Reagan said he would support the reestablishment of official relations with Taiwan. George H. W. Bush, running against Reagan in the Republican primary that year, was similarly critical of Carter’s approach.

Once in office, however, the new Reagan administration, with Bush as vice president, proceeded to embark on a closer, more extensive working relationship with China than ever before.

U.S. senior military officers engaged their counterparts in China for the first time, and U.S. military and intelligence agencies worked together with China on strategic issues such as the war in Afghanistan. In addition, U.S. navy ships made their first visits to Chinese ports and Reagan liberalized export controls for dual-use technology.

Reagan made China eligible for the Foreign Military Sales program, which led to U.S. defense contractors supplying torpedoes, artillery-locating radars, and helicopters to the People’s Liberation Army. Reagan also authorized funding to help modernize China’s jet fighters and to enhance production of artillery.

On the issue of Taiwan, neither Reagan nor Bush ever attempted to change the state of America’s unofficial relationship with the island.

Did President Bill Clinton also reverse his position on China?

Yes. On the campaign trail, Bill Clinton used the China issue to criticize the foreign policies of the incumbent Republican administration.

With the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident fresh on the minds of many Americans, Clinton accused Reagan and Bush of “coddling dictators” in China and specifically condemned Bush for sending “secret emissaries to raise a toast with those who crushed democracy” in Tiananmen, referring to the visit of Bush’s national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft.

Clinton was especially vocal in his pledge to link the granting of the most-favored-nation trade status to China improving its human rights record, criticizing Bush’s decision to unconditionally renew China’s most-favored-nation status.

Once in office, however, Clinton backtracked from this pledge. During his first year as president, he blocked the creation of a bill that would have required China to change its policies on human rights and trade over a one-year period in order to win most-favored-nation renewal the following year.

Clinton convinced the bill’s key proponents on Capitol Hill—Senator George Mitchell and Representative Nancy Pelosi—to instead work with his administration to create a presidential executive order that he said would essentially serve the same function. Clinton signed the executive order in the spring of 1993.

However, one year later, Clinton dropped the executive order and stopped linking China’s most-favored-nation trade status with its human rights record, saying it was time to “take a new path” with China.

Then, in his second term, Clinton took steps to develop a U.S.-China strategic partnership. In 1997, Jiang Zemin traveled to Washington for the first official visit to the United States by a Chinese head of state in twelve years and, in June 1998, Clinton traveled to China for a ten-day summit.

This was quite a turnaround from Clinton’s rhetoric during the 1992 campaign. Just as Reagan and Bush used China to distinguish themselves from Carter, Clinton used China to criticize the foreign policies of the administrations under Reagan and Bush.

Did George W. Bush similarly shift his policies?

While campaigning, George W. Bush was very critical of Clinton’s handling of China, stressing the discrepancy between Clinton’s campaign rhetoric during the 1992 presidential campaign and his actions once in office by saying, “One year, China is said to be run by ‘the butchers of Beijing.’ A few years later, the same administration pronounces it a ‘strategic partner.’”

During the campaign in 2000, Bush summed up his position on China by stating, “China is a competitor, not a strategic partner.” However, once in office, Bush moved toward a much more pragmatic path with China. In his first year in office, he moved away from the “competitor” rhetoric and instead defined relations with China as “candid, constructive, and cooperative.”

What about President Obama?

During Barack Obama’s bid for president in 2008, he claimed that he would be tougher on China, especially regarding economic issues. He was critical of the $1 trillion debt to China and was vocal about calling China a currency manipulator. He also stressed the importance of pressing China on human rights and intellectual property rights.

Almost immediately after taking office, the Obama administration backtracked on its currency manipulator stance. During the new administration’s first days, then treasury secretary-designate, Timothy Geithner, followed campaign-trail talking points and replied to questions raised during his Senate confirmation hearings by stating that China was in fact a currency manipulator. But when pressed by the media as to whether this was official White House position, the administration moved to distance itself from Geithner’s response.

And after nearly four years in office, Obama has yet to follow through on officially designating China a currency manipulator.

Thus, while Obama ran on the slogan of “change,” his policies were much more about “continuity,” at least when it came to China. The broad outlines of U.S. policy toward China remained the same. Obama did not stray too far from past policy by calling the U.S.-China bilateral relationship “positive, cooperative, and comprehensive.”

How has Mitt Romney incorporated China into his platform?

Not surprisingly, with Republican challenger Mitt Romney there are some similar trends with those seen in presidential campaigns since 1980. Romney has come out tough on China and critical of Obama’s China policy, in very much the same way that challengers have in the past.

In a high-profile way, Romney has said that he will label China a currency manipulator “on day one.” A recent Romney campaign ad has a narrator saying, “Seven times Obama could have stopped China’s cheating. Seven times he refused.” He has released ads accusing Obama of letting American jobs slip away to China and has accused China of stealing American technology and intellectual property.

And the anti-China rhetoric continues to ratchet up. In September, Romney launched five television ad spots that use China to attack the president. His ads are running across eight swing states and accuse Obama of failing to crack down on China’s behavior.

The common refrain we are now hearing from Romney is that Obama promised in 2008 to take China to the mat but instead Obama allowed China to treat him like a doormat. Romney promises not to let that happen if elected.

Why is Romney employing this strategy?

Given that this election will, in large part, be decided on the strength of the American economy, Romney’s criticism of China and Obama’s China policies help him come across as strong internationally and committed to improving bread-and-butter economic issues important to Americans such as jobs, trade, and manufacturing.

In that sense, tough rhetoric on China could work well among working-class voters in manufacturing swing states like Ohio. Moreover, this kind of rhetoric is also useful for demonstrating Romney’s strong commitment to America first and his unquestionable patriotism.

How has Obama responded to Romney’s criticisms of the administration’s approach to China?

Obama is making it difficult for Romney to appear tougher than him on China. In late September, Obama blocked a Chinese-backed firm from acquiring several wind farm projects in Oregon due to national security concerns.

The Obama administration also filed a new case with the World Trade Organization against China in September, charging China with unfairly subsidizing exports of cars and auto parts. Not surprisingly, President Obama made this announcement in the battleground state of Ohio, where many workers are employed by the auto industry. The administration says that it has brought more trade cases against China in one term than the previous administration did in two, claiming that “every case we’ve brought that’s been decided, we won.”

Obama has also attacked Romney for his time as head of Bain Capital in the 1990s, saying that Romney profited from several investments in Chinese companies. “You can’t stand up to China when all you’ve done is send them our jobs.”

If Romney wins the election, what will his foreign policy be toward China?

Given historical trends, we are likely to see a similar story if Romney is elected. As with past presidents, Romney can be expected to shift to a more pragmatic position once given the responsibility to govern the nation, and not just campaign for president.

In this regard, Romney will need to find a way to roll back his threats to officially label China a currency manipulator in order to avoid a tit-for-tat trade war with China that risks damaging U.S. business interests and threatening China’s willingness to buy U.S. Treasury debt.

How exactly Romney would do this is not entirely clear. Given that he has been so vocal on China’s currency manipulation, and that the issue is closely related to bread-and-butter domestic economy issues, Romney may feel pressure to take some action early on to show voters he is being true to his word. But as with Clinton’s early actions linking trade and human rights, Romney can also be expected to gradually step back from his threats to officially designate China a currency manipulator.

I expect Romney will continue the same basic policy pursued by previous administrations, wherein the United States actively engages China, attempts to enhance cooperation where it can, reduces areas where China and the United States disagree, and at the same time hedges against a China that adopts policies inimical to U.S. national interests. The U.S.-China relationship is too consequential to move along a deliberate path of hostility or confrontation.

How much longer can the United States continue the trend of using China as a whipping boy in presidential campaigns and then soften the U.S. position after elections?

This is uncertain. While candidates may not take a hit domestically in terms of favorability ratings, I fear there may be a big price in terms of how Americans’ views toward China and Chinese perceptions of the United States are being shaped or influenced.

While many may understand that these trends have existed for decades, this type of harsh campaign rhetoric on China can have a negative impact on the bilateral relationship over time and a destructive impact on trust between the two countries.

Given the consequential nature of the relationship, Americans need to ask themselves what impact this is having on the serious strategic mistrust between the two countries and whether it will hamper Washington’s ability to enhance cooperation and enjoy constructive relations with Beijing.

It is also worth exploring whether this type of harsh campaign rhetoric is more dangerous this time around given that China is also undergoing a leadership transition and that Chinese leaders may be under the same type of pressure as American politicians to prove that they’re not soft on the United States.