U.S.-China relations are as strained as they have been in more than a decade. The U.S. is suddenly turning its attention back to East Asia after 10 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq (the so-called "pivot"), only to find that China has been steadily advancing its territorial claims and asserting itself as the pre-eminent regional power it believes it ought to be. Chinese assertiveness regarding territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and others has driven its neighbors firmly to the side of the U.S.
Unfortunately, this has encouraged Washington's instincts to deepen military ties with other states in the region. China perceives that as an effort at containing Chinese power. It has also fed a new round of China-bashing and overhyping of the potential threat from China. It almost doesn't matter which presidential candidate wins in November. Tensions between the U.S. and China seem likely to increase in the years to come unless something major changes.
Fortunately, most campaign rhetoric about China tends to give way to practical realities.
While the Obama administration's foreign policy has mostly been characterized by attempts to accommodate the interests of regional powers, its policy toward China over the last two years has been very different. From the dispute over the Senkaku Islands and Chinese claims in the South China Sea to U.S. ties to China's neighbors, Obama has generally taken a harder line with the Chinese government than his predecessor did, and the administration shows no signs of backing off from intensifying military cooperation with regional states as diverse as Australia and Vietnam. Despite all of this, Mitt Romney, Obama's likely rival in the general election, faulted the administration for originally being a "near supplicant to Beijing," which could become a problem for Obama in the general election if it is repeated often enough. It will likely force Obama to emphasize his hawkishness on China during the campaign, which will place added strain on the relationship.
But the most egregious recent example of China-bashing came in a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Romney. He effectively pledged to start a trade war with China once in office. Further, he warned absurdly of possible Chinese global hegemony and a "Chinese century" if his recommended policies weren't followed.
Romney paired his antagonistic trade policy with the promise of maintaining a military presence designed to counter "the long-term challenge posed by China's build-up." That promises to fuel unnecessary and costly security competition for both states and for America's allies. This cannot be separated from Romney's insistence on a massive expansion of the U.S. Navy to increase our maritime presence in the western Pacific. Romney presented his China policy purely in terms of increased confrontation and provocation. While he may not think his proposals are an "invitation to conflict," his policies would worsen relations and make the eruption of accidental conflict more likely.
Fortunately, most campaign rhetoric about China tends to give way to practical realities. The most memorable example of this was Bill Clinton's election-year lecturing of the elder President Bush for "coddling dictators" in Beijing. Clinton then spent the next eight years greatly expanding U.S.-China ties. Every challenger likes to position himself as a critic of the supposedly morally obtuse incumbent when it comes to China policy, but once in office, the challenger usually adopts most, if not all, of the incumbent's practices. Voters shouldn't totally ignore what Romney says about China, but it is hardly likely that he would be able to follow through on his riskiest proposals.
One possible opportunity for improving U.S.-China relations in the coming year is the promotion of a new Chinese president. Vice President Xi Jinping is expected to succeed Hu Jintao, and during his recent visit to America he gave clear indications that he is interested in building a deeper, constructive relationship with the United States. As he said, "China welcomes the United States playing a constructive role in promoting the peace, stability, and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region," but he also added that "we hope the U.S. side will truly respect the interests and concerns of countries in the region, including China." A change in leadership obviously doesn't eliminate disagreements based on divergent interests, and its significance should not be exaggerated. But Xi's ascension can be an occasion for reducing tensions between our governments that should not be neglected.