Last night was “foreign policy night” in the third and final presidential debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama
A 15-minute segment was devoted to the subject of “The Rise of China and Tomorrow’s World” by moderator Bob Schieffer. Unfortunately, we got very little insight into the candidates view of China’s role in the world or how they would approach China overall.
Yesterday’s blog hoped that Obama and Romney would touch on issues of democracy, human rights, territorial ambitions and Tibet. Instead, the candidates used this foreign policy topic to steer the conversation back to domestic themes. China became a vehicle to talk about trade, manufacturing, industrial policy, taxes, etc.
The New Yorker’s always insightful Evan Osnos writes that this is troubling:
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.”
A Beijing-based Chinese economist agreed: “Chinese officials will be satisfied by the debate, as the China topics were trade and currency, and neither candidate mentioned human rights, so it was quite friendly towards China.”
However, there were a couple of interesting moments that provided a window into each man’s thoughts on China.
First, President Obama opened up with the view that “China’s both an adversary but also a potential partner in the international community if it’s following the rules.” The use of “adversary” certainly got noticed in Beijing, and according to Foreignpolicy.com’s Josh Rogin, appeared to contradict his own Administration’s messaging on U.S-China relations. Rogin cites a speech by Secretary of State Clinton in 2009 where she distances the Administration’s approach from those who would label China an “adversary.” Of course, the Administration’s posture has evolved over three years in response to a more globally assertive posture by Beijing. Perhaps Obama’s choice of words reflects that evolution.
It is also interesting that he used the phrase “potential partner,” which implies China is not a partner now. This also is a different tone than that expressed by his Administration, and will also be noticed in Beijing (if not first by his Treasury Secretary).
For his part, Governor Romney tacked away from Obama’s comments, saying, “We don’t have to be an adversary in any way, shape or form. We can work with them. We can collaborate with them if they’re willing to be responsible.” This is similar to Obama’s approach, by putting the onus back on Beijing to choose whether it wants to be a responsible partner. At the same time, experts pointed to this as a softening of Romney’s tone on China. It seems to have been welcomed in Beijing.
Romney also said, “China has an interest that’s very much like ours in one respect, and that is they want a stable world. They don’t want war. They don’t want to see protectionism… So they want the economy to work and the world to be free and open.”
For one, Romney assesses that the Chinese don’t want protectionism even as he has previously accused them of practicing it, when he called China “cheaters” and promised to “crack down” by labeling them as currency manipulators.
For another, Romney’s claim that the Chinese want the world to be “free and open” raises eyebrows, given that China is consistently rated by Freedom House as the “worst of the worst” among the world’s most repressed society. (This notion is cleverly displayed in TIME magazine’s recent cover story on Xi Jinping: The Next Leader of the Unfree World.) But perhaps Romney meant to refer to free and open commercial markets.
Overall, it was revealing that the Middle East dominated the debate. While China got one-sixth of the time, that was more than Europe, Latin American and Africa combined. My reaction to the topical allocation in the debate can be summed up by a Tweet last night by the ever-witty @RelevantOrgans (a Twitter handle that satirizes the Chinese Communist Propaganda Bureau):
But this missed opportunity to have a serious debate on China policy doesn’t mean it’s the last chance for such a debate. Tonight, four third party candidates will participate in a debate in Chicago – Jill Stein of the Green Party, Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party, Virgil Goode of the Constitution Party and Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party. Let’s see what they have to say on China.
Lastly, I offer a reminder to urge the candidates to respond to ICT’s 2012 Tibet questionnaire, in which they tell voters what their Tibet policy would be. We have heard from one candidate (Obama) but not heard from the others we asked (Romney, Stein, Johnson). Our page gives you tips for how to contact the campaigns via e-mail, Facebook and Twitter.