China policy increasingly important in U.S. presidential campaign

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While many people in the United States are focusing on “made in China” tags and substandard food, China is reaching out to leading U.S. presidential candidates, holding an unpublicized meeting with several of their top foreign policy advisors. Vice Foreign minister Dai Bingguo recently had dinner with advisors to some of the leading presidential candidates including Sen. Joseph R. Biden, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sen. John McCain, Sen. Barack Obama, and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney according to The Washington Post.

From The Washington Post article:

The meeting underscored the intense interest in the U.S. presidential campaign among foreign leaders, particularly in China, which has historically been uneasy about transitions in the White House. China is especially nervous about rising complaints from U.S. politicians over the handling of its economy, as well as criticism of its role in protecting the Sudanese government from international sanctions for its role in the atrocities in Darfur.

“The Chinese are trying to figure out how to affect domestic U.S. politics,” said Michael J. Green, a former adviser on Asia to President Bush. “They know that changes in U.S. government lead to different China policies that are uncomfortable for them.”

Policy toward China has not emerged as a major issue in the early going of the 2008 campaign, though a number of candidates have focused on the rising impact of China’s economy on the United States. Dai seemed curious about whether that would change, one participant said. He was told by several people that there would be a greater focus on China by the next president.

The widening trade gap, an undervalued RMB, trade protectionism, and intellectual property rights are all issues the next president will have to deal with. Just how they move forward will depend a lot on the advice they receive. James Fallows provides a bit of insight into the sort of advice the current Administration received prior to taking office on his blog. According to the blog post, if not for 9/11, the United States and China would be at war today.

Incendiary stuff, here’s a choice excerpt:

The commission had 14 members, split 7-7, Republican and Democrat, as is de rigeur for bodies of this type. Today Hart told me that in the first few meetings, commission members would go around the room and volunteer their ideas about the nation’s greatest vulnerabilities, most urgent needs, and so on.

At the first meeting, one Republican woman on the commission said that the overwhelming threat was from China. Sooner or later the U.S. would end up in a military showdown with the Chinese Communists. There was no avoiding it, and we would only make ourselves weaker by waiting. No one else spoke up in support.

The same thing happened at the second meeting — discussion from other commissioners about terrorism, nuclear proliferation, anarchy of failed states, etc, and then this one woman warning about the looming Chinese menace. And the third meeting too. Perhaps more.

Finally, in frustration, this woman left the commission.

“Her name was Lynne Cheney,” Hart said. “I am convinced that if it had not been for 9/11, we would be in a military showdown with China today.” Not because of what China was doing, threatening, or intending, he made clear, but because of the assumptions the Administration brought with it when taking office.

It remains to be seen whether China will emerge as a major issue during the 2008 campaign, but the incoming administration will have to move quickly to install an experienced team, adept in the international arena. As China’s influence continues to expand globally, U.S. Administration officials from Ambassadors and Secretaries of State and Commerce to Treasury officials will have to consider China in their decision making much more than their previous counterparts did.