A year ago, American sentiment toward China, at least as expressed by many Members of Congress, was decidedly negative. Pending legislation included denunciations of China’s subsidization of exports and currency manipulation. Some Members of Congress wanted to restrict all Chinese imports. The slow American economic recovery was blamed to a significant degree on China.
Now, with Americans more focused on domestic economic woes than on any other single concern, complaints about China have receded. Illegal immigrants in the United States seem more of a target than anyone outside the country, even though there is no evidence at all that they have contributed to unemployment or economic stagnation. Historically, Americans tend to blame foreigners for economic hardship and there is a spike in trade remedy actions against foreign products. Not this time. Neither China nor anyone else but Americans themselves (and perhaps the aliens within), especially congressional leaders, seem to be blamed.
Still, China remains an available target, or at least a convenient means for collateral attacks on other trade priorities. The Obama Administration recognizes three pending trade agreements, with Korea, Colombia, and Panama, as potential stimuli for an expansion of exports that would create jobs. After three years renegotiating them to satisfy moderate Democrats as well as trade unions, the Administration declared them ready for congressional passage many months ago. Republicans, claiming to be champions of free trade, zealously advocated for their immediate passage until the Administration was satisfied with them. Then, Republicans launched a political campaign to deny workers displaced by trade agreements the Trade Adjustment Assistance (“TAA”) that for many years had enjoyed bipartisan support because the Administration linked TAA to passage of the trade deals.
The Administration may have pacified Democrats with the renegotiations and persuaded them that the trade agreements would bolster the economy, but not enough to prevent the insinuation of China as a barrier to final congressional approval. House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has demanded a House vote on a bill retaliating against alleged Chinese currency manipulation as a pre-condition for voting on the trade deals. Her gambit, moreover, seems to have some companion support on the other side of Capitol Hill, where a small group of Senators plans to introduce a similar bill to retaliate against alleged Chinese currency manipulation. No such bill currently is pending, and none was passed in the last year, but Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) is proposing one, focused as much on a complaint about the WTO’s Appellate Body as on China.
With a crowded legislative agenda, bills on Chinese currency not yet fully conceptualized are not likely ever to become law. The very threat of them, however, could impede other international trade. The attempted linkage to the trade agreements with Korea, Colombia, and Panama is typical of congressional legislative tactics, but also a desperate sabotage of the Administration by its own political party.
The Administration wants and needs the trade deals. Republicans have wanted these trade deals, but have not wanted President Obama to enjoy the satisfaction and potential electoral help from passing them. The President could not pass them relying on his own party. At the moment when he seemed to have struck an agreement with Republicans to pass both TAA and the three free trade agreements, some Democrats seem to be seeking ways to stop him. Their general weapon of choice appears to be China, which Obama has not wanted to antagonize, and more specifically the currency, which his economists generally have advised not to pursue more than diplomacy has been pursuing already.
China, then, is no longer the principal target in bills about currency manipulation. In the Senate, the more fundamental complaint is about the WTO, and in the House the intended target is trade liberalization. In neither case is China likely to be used effectively, but it surely must be to China’s dismay that it is being used in these debates at all.
Other pending legislation regarding China arises more in the context of national security or simple nationalism: a resolution that would ban Chinese manufacture of parts for the President’s helicopter fleet; a ban on technology transfer from NASA. There is more than one “sense of” resolution, which has no legal consequence. Meanwhile, the Administration is promising China more from its export control reform than it can or will deliver, but at least it is actively gesturing in a desired direction.
Unlike a year ago, the legislative spotlight illuminating grievances over the economy and trade is not on China. Indeed, what some call the “Manchurian Candidate” for President, former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, has suggested that the United States must look to itself before looking to China for explanations of economic difficulties. The current focus should not be misinterpreted: the bills about China are not about China.
There are many reasons why. The most important is domestic. The summer spectacle of eighty-seven congressional freshmen holding the country’s debt ceiling hostage concentrated minds at home. Imminent possible failure of European banks, and of whole countries, has shifted focus from east to west. Renewed Wall Street bonuses and continuing home foreclosures are reminders of domestic greed, not foreign malevolence. The national conversation is not about China.
There is also a powerful explanation in the deliberate foreign policy toward China of the Obama Administration. Much has been done to routinize U.S.-China diplomacy and reduce earlier tensions. Even as there have been few concrete accomplishments, there have been many calming meetings. The Strategic and Economic Dialogue convened successfully. A summit of Presidents in Washington in January helped Obama recover from his doubtful Asian outing last November, and squads of potential Chinese investors have been visiting the United States, nurturing hope that some of the massive foreign reserves accumulated by China may yet find their way back to the United States. Better in the form of investments than loans or purchased bonds. China, at least rhetorically, has recognized that it cannot continue to attract foreign investment without making some foreign investments of its own.
In November, while in Asia, Obama called for resumption of the Doha Round. His Administration now admits that this objective is not likely to be fulfilled. With its failure will be a failure to capitalize on the imagined global trading rewards that might have energized the world’s economy, and diminish even more the instruments thought to be available for economic recovery. In place of multilateralism, bilateralism is a modest but nonetheless significant alternative.
Successful partnership with China becomes more important with every multilateral setback. Diplomacy that routinizes the relationship, that removes it from a critical spotlight, inevitably makes the partnership more attractive to China. The trick, however, must be to avoid appearing weak, or desperate, to China. As much as the United States needs China, China needs the United States. As congressional complaint about China is not about China, friendship with China is not necessarily so much about China either. Both are about solving economic problems felt at home but driven by forces as foreign as domestic.
And so it is for China, too. China needs the United States as much for China as for the United States, for domestic as well as foreign purposes.
Changes in American politics about China from a year ago say more about the United States than about China or U.S.-China relations. It will be important for both countries to recognize and understand the impact of domestic politics on their relations, and on the needs they have for each other.