Argument

Red State

Why China wants Mitt Romney to win.

With Mitt Romney and Barack Obama trading jabs over who will be tougher on China, somehow the bigger picture has been lost: Which U.S. presidential candidate would be better for U.S.-China relations?

It's an important question for Beijing. In 2011, the United States was China's largest trading partner. With millions of its own jobs at stake, Beijing is not only mindful of the U.S. presidential candidates' strong views on China's currency, but on the bigger issue of how each would direct economic policy over the next four years. And this attention comes at a particularly delicate time, as Beijing is watching the U.S. "return to Asia" and "rebalancing" in the Asia-Pacific and thinking about how this will evolve as China rises. These U.S. policies -- along with issues including labor, environment, market access, and intellectual property rights -- will directly affect China's development and prosperity. That in turn will influence China's domestic stability and perhaps even its government's legitimacy, especially as its new leadership emerges from the November Communist Party Congress, just days after the U.S. election.

Despite his aggressive rhetoric, a President Romney might actually be better for China.

Traditionally, Republicans have favored free trade, free enterprise, and less regulation -- qualities more or less compatible with China's present state economic philosophy of development, investment, trade, entrepreneurship, and efficiency -- not to mention a shared concern over the economic risk of curbing climate change. Since the two countries established an official relationship in 1979, their overall relations have been better when Republicans have been in power. The logic is simple: no delusion from the outset, fewer human rights distractions, frank talk, and concrete cooperation whenever possible. This plain dealing tends to stabilize China-U.S. bilateral relations, as it avoids speculation and gaming.

Candidate Romney's repeated promise that he would label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office is well known. But could he really afford to do so? China imported $120 billion of U.S. commodities in 2011, and roughly 1 million Chinese visitors toured the United States that year, each spending an average of around $7,000. Despite China's slowing economy, these numbers will increase in 2012. Would a President Romney really honor his threat, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs? Two days before the 2008 presidential election, Obama issued a similar threat to protect the U.S. textile business from Chinese competition. After winning the election, his administration spent roughly four months investigating whether China was, in fact, artificially suppressing its currency. The conclusion? China was not manipulating the renminbi.

If Romney does win, he will likely follow in Obama's footsteps; after all, he'd have to think not only of the U.S. economy, but of his second term. As president, Romney should understand that China can be less a competitor than an opportunity for the United States. The current U.S. economic and financial stress is primarily an outcome of globalization and U.S. overspending, especially due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Washington could blame Beijing for exacerbating the U.S. financial crisis, or it could engage with China -- working together for a collectively beneficial solution.

As America's decade-long war in Central Asia draws to an end, China and the United States will have far less need to cooperate on the anti-terrorism front. And this redistribution of resources could cause problems. With China's fast growth and the U.S. frustration with what it sees as Beijing's growing assertiveness, the Obama administration has shifted to a "pivot" strategy to balance China in East Asia and beyond. A growing amount of friction between the two countries, brought on by concerns such as Washington's suspicion of China's intentions in the South China Sea, have deepened their strategic distrust. If Obama succeeds, he will surely continue in this direction.

President Romney's foreign policy would not necessarily be all that great for China either. He has promised to sell more advanced weaponry to Taiwan and would likely not care to spare much time explaining America's Asia security policy to Beijing. Rather, his administration would simply assert U.S. leadership in the region. On the surface, his blunt statements, if extrapolated into policy, would be more threatening toward Beijing. Nevertheless, because it is so direct, his rhetoric would invite less illusion and misperception, which could in the end be less misleading and less frustrating.

Obama still fruitlessly tries to explain that his Asia pivot isn't intended to contain China, and he makes gestures to cooperate with China when it is possible. This overture (before the pivot) succeeded in the first year of his administration, but since the end of 2009, the bilateral relationship has soured.

Today, China's increased capacity allows it more confidence and means to shape the Sino-U.S. relationship. However, this has to be applied properly, and much of this is based on knowing clearly where the other party stands. China might have had good reasons to bluntly reject the U.S. demand to curb global warming at the 2009 Copenhagen climate change summit, but it would be more constructive if China had engaged the United States more patiently and courteously. Beijing had cause to demand an immediate halt of Washington's weapons sales to Taiwan in 2010 with the threat that the United States would face "real" sanctions. But again, compromise would have been better. Beijing has legitimate "core interests" in the South China Sea, but once again it would make more sense to clarify as early as possible that China doesn't aspire to claim the entire region, as it did early this year. A good China-U.S. relationship depends on both countries. China's rise makes the relationship less dependent on the United States than it used to be, but it is not yet the time when this relationship is more dependent on Beijing's actions than it is on Washington's.

The truth is that it still matters to Beijing who's in the White House. And China won't have as much to worry about with a President Romney. If Romney wins in November, both he and presumably Xi Jinping will likely shake hands and forget what candidate Romney has said thus far, in much the same manner as both Beijing and Washington have moved beyond the rhetoric of the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign.

But China has reason to be concerned that a second term for Obama -- and the continuation of present policies -- would present continuous challenges to the relationship. A new president would allow for a clean slate, one that wouldn't push the United States in a harmful direction with regard to China. And, frankly, the quiet truth is that even if President Romney were to intend irrationally to hurt China, there's little chance he would actually be able to chart a path to do so in which the United States remained unhurt by its own actions.

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National Security

Don't Assume Iran Is the Greatest Threat

Five other dangers that deserve our immediate attention.

"I'd actually like to move to Iran," declared the real winner of last week's vice presidential debate -- moderator Martha Raddatz -- "because there's really no bigger national security [threat] this country is facing." Both candidates quickly agreed, and of course both President Obama and Governor Romney have highlighted the threat Tehran poses to the United States and the world in general. Only slightly obliquely, Obama even warned that the United States would consider military action to prevent Iran from going nuclear, a commitment Governor Romney shares.

Indeed, concern about Iran is held widely on both sides of the aisle and among the political class -- perhaps as close as we come these days to a true bipartisan issue -- and it is likely that any future administration will continue to put massive amounts of time and resources into the problem. Iran, and especially its nuclear program, should remain a concern of any future administration, but it is far from the only serious threat to U.S. national security -- and perhaps not even near the top of the list. Here are some other countries and dangers that voters should think about as the candidates offer their competing visions of the U.S. role in the world:

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Pakistan. You name the problem, Pakistan seems to have it: jihadist terrorism, ethnic strife, disputed borders, endemic corruption, and a weak government that seems weaker at every pass. Oh, and it has nuclear weapons, scientists who go on the road to sell them, and a series of governments that openly back the Taliban, among other nasty movements. Under President George W. Bush, and then under Obama, the United States tried to work with Pakistan while at the same time never trusting it -- a policy mirrored by the regime in Islamabad, which believes with good reason that the United States is a fickle ally. This unhappy approach may be the best that can be managed given the lack of strong pro-U.S. voices in Pakistan, but the prospect for even more serious unrest in Pakistan is of grave concern. Even worse, Pakistan has tolerated, or supported depending on your view, terrorist attacks on India, raising the possibility of a war between two nuclear-armed states. Such a war might leave thousands dead or, if it goes nuclear, millions. The environmental costs would be global, stunting agriculture, and posing health problems that would last for generations.

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North Korea. Perhaps the only reason we focus less on North Korea than we do Iran is that we know so little about conditions in the hermit kingdom. But we do know that North Korea has nuclear weapons and that it has shared at least some of its technology with anti-U.S. regimes like Bashar al-Assad's Syria. Putting aside the staggering brutality of the North Korean regime -- hard to do for even the most hard-headed realist -- the North Korean regime often creates foreign policy crises, such as testing its missiles or picking a small fight with South Korea, to build up domestic support. Dartmouth's Jennifer Lind and I have argued that the North Korean regime can survive despite the country's poor economy, collapsing legitimacy, and god-awful political system, but the potential for serious instability or even regime collapse remains quite real. While we should worry about Iran's potential nuclear weapons threatening the United States, we should also worry about North Korea's actual nuclear weapons.

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China. China is not an enemy of the United States. Nor is China a friend. Analysts often use euphemistic terms like "rival" or "potential challenger" to describe the regime's relationship to the United States, and no label quite captures a country that is the world's most populous, has the a rapidly growing economy that is already the second largest, and an expanding military that is rapidly moving from third-class to first- rate. China's leadership is both nationalistic and cautious, unchallenged yet suffering from declining legitimacy, eager to establish the country's standing in the world yet prickly and at times obstructionist in solving global problems like climate change or regional problems like Syria. No one knows what China will become in the years to come, but historians may look back at the next four years as the period that determined the nature of the relationship between the twenty-first century's two greatest powers. Greatest threat? Maybe not. Greatest challenge? Quite likely.

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Syria and the Arc of Crisis. The civil war in Syria has gone from bad to worse: not only has the pace of the killing accelerated, but jihadists are playing a major role in the anti-regime violence. Perhaps even scarier, Turkey and Syria are exchanging fire across their border, Iran and Hezbollah are sending fighters to aid the regime, Damascus is backing anti-Turkish Kurdish fighters, refugees are pouring into neighboring states by the tens of thousands, and the crisis threatens to radicalize the region. Of Syria's neighbors, Iraq and Lebanon are particularly vulnerable: both have recently suffered communal and sectarian civil wars, both have weak governments, and both have factions within the country that want to help different sides in the conflict. So a horrific war is steadily becoming a regional crisis, with the United States little more than a bystander. Key allies such as Israel and Turkey might be dragged in, while al Qaeda and other terrorists reap the spoils of war.

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The United States. Okay, we don't threaten ourselves. But sky-high budget deficits and an unwillingness to raise taxes an iota will inevitably lead to cuts in spending on defense and intelligence (the only question is whether we'll use the sequestration axe or a more sensible scalpel). Perhaps even more important, the American people may be reluctant to make sacrifices to ensure we have a robust foreign policy. Support for foreign aid gets lower and lower, and grinding wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made Americans wary (often appropriately) about the risks of intervention. We will still have a massive military and international presence, but we will have fewer resources than before and may be less willing to use them. We cannot think about threats abroad without recognizing how our problems at home will shape our response.

Where Iran ranks on this list is an open question. The clerical regime in Tehran is openly hostile to the United States and its regional allies. Yet its leadership seems more rational than what we've seen in North Korea, the country is less chaotic than Pakistan (to say nothing of Syria), and of course its military and economic power are a pale shadow of China's. None of this means Iran can be ignored, but it also means that as we evaluate candidates we need to think beyond the crisis of the moment. We also need to recognize the limits on our power, and any president will have to decide how much to push the American people in pursuit of his foreign policy objectives. Some, perhaps all, of the challenges above have no good solutions (and often we'll only know what was a foolish idea in hindsight), but all of them deserve scrutiny as candidates present their case to the American people that they can best keep our country safe and ensure that the United States remains a world leader.

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