Hollow Threats

Mitt Romney's aggressive harangues about China don't scare us. And does he really want to pick a fight with a nation of 1.3 billion people?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

BEIJING — Mitt Romney has said a lot of tough things about China. But his words haven’t troubled the Chinese people.

This is because, over the last 20 years, the China policies of U.S. presidents have always been milder than the threats the same men made on the campaign trail. In other words, no one seriously thinks that a candidate will actually implement these tough policies. The Chinese people have already mentally prepared for the possibility of Sino-U.S. relations growing tenser, but this is the result of Sino-U.S. competition rapidly growing fiercer, not the possibility of Romney becoming president.

Romney’s tough words toward China sound very empty, as if he’s just communicating to the electorate his determination to be faithful to America’s national interests. Attacking China on human rights and its political system and describing China as an "opponent" in military and economic areas makes the loyalty he has pledged to the United States seem more real. Barack Obama, as president, cannot directly attack China; Romney, as a candidate, will attack us every chance he gets — if merely to make the point that Obama is constrained and weak.

Romney’s most striking attack line toward China is his stated desire to call China a currency-manipulating country on his first day in the White House. Will he really do this? I don’t know. But what’s certain is that if he does end up in the White House, he wouldn’t dare provoke an all-out trade war between China and the United States. Even if he does call China a currency manipulator, the label will be meaningless because of the hugeness of Sino-U.S. trade.

Sino-U.S. relations and those between the Soviet Union and the United States are completely different. The societies of the United States and the Soviet Union never came in contact with each other; their two countries’ top officials decided everything about the relationship. But Sino-U.S. relations revolve around the two countries’ robust societal and economic contacts. Their scale and prospects are big enough to trump the values and security interests that usually frame these two countries’ relations.

The leaders of the United States and China admittedly can personally affect Sino-U.S. relations, but only in a limited way. They can influence the atmosphere of the relationship and other surface matters, but the two countries’ core interests guide Sino-U.S. relations.

These relations could grow tenser in the future because the two countries’ respective interests in the relationship have quietly changed since China’s rise. If Romney gets elected, even if he doesn’t continue to encourage anti-Chinese sentiment, there will be more friction between the two countries than there is today. The next U.S. president must work to limit the mistrust between the two countries and prevent them from exploding with suspicion.

The possibility that the United States will be able to contain China is very small because China’s rise is a natural process with many forces behind it. Containing China would be difficult. At best, the United States can dedicate itself to lessening the damage China’s rise will have on America’s interests and enjoying the opportunities created by China’s development.

I can understand America’s vigilant attitude toward China. But I believe Americans will not be reckless in trying to contain China. In other words, as long as China doesn’t provoke the United States, containing China won’t become U.S. policy.

As for the U.S.-China row over things like rare earths, the exchange rate, and even human rights, all these conflicts have been very specific, and they haven’t capsized the whole relationship. We believe the person whom the Americans elect to enter the White House will, at the very least, have rational thoughts. Romney won’t make the mistake of turning a specific conflict into a showdown with 1.3 billion Chinese people.

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