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Shops selling Obama T-shirts in Nanluoguxiang, Beijing.
Shops selling Obama T-shirts in Nanluoguxiang, Beijing.
Xie Tao

BEIJING - At the final debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, which was focused on foreign policy, the subject of the rise of China was clearly on the agenda.

But when the moderator posed the question: “What do you believe is the greatest future threat to the national security of this country?” Obama cited terrorist networks, while Romney referred to a nuclear Iran.

Their answers set the tone for the rest of the debate – that China is not a threat to America.

However, what Obama said was still unsettling. He said, “With respect to China, China's both an adversary but also a potential partner in the international community if it's following the rules… And we believe China can be a partner, but we're also sending a very clear signal that America is a Pacific power, that we are going to have a presence there...”

Obama’s statement reinforced exactly what’s been worrying Chinese decision makers and scholars – that the United States is pivoting back to Asia.

On the other hand, Romney’s answer surprised many Chinese. He said, “China has an interest that's very much like ours in one respect, and that is they want a stable world. They don't want war. They don't want to see protectionism… And so we can be a partner with China. We don't have to be an adversary in any way, shape or form. We can work with them. We can collaborate with them if they're willing to be responsible.”

However, Romney reaffirmed his promise to label China a currency manipulator on the first day of his presidency.

Who do we believe?

Romney’s statement is questionable to many Chinese. Compare it to his policy statement towards China and East Asia on his official campaign site.

Romney’s site says: “China must be discouraged from attempting to intimidate or dominate neighboring states. If the present Chinese regime is permitted to establish itself as the preponderant power in the Western Pacific it could close off large parts of the region to cooperative relations with the United States and the West and dim hope that economic opportunity and democratic freedom will continue to flourish across East Asia. Mitt Romney will implement a strategy that makes the path of regional hegemony for China far more costly than the alternative path of becoming a responsible partner in the international system… In the face of China’s accelerated military build-up, the United States and our allies must maintain appropriate military capabilities to discourage any aggressive or coercive behavior by China against its neighbors...”

So, which Romney do we believe - the one in the third debate, or the one from the statement?

If I were to choose between the two candidates, I’d still prefer Romney. The reason is simple: When America was suffering from an extended economic downturn, there was increasing domestic trade protectionism. A very crucial electoral base for the Democratic Party is trade union organizations that strongly approve of trade protectionism. That’s why the Obama administration constantly lodged anti-dumping investigations. The Republican Party has been tough in dealing with foreign affairs, but one of its important strengths is that it supports free trade.

But in fact, whether it’s the Democrats or Republicans, a leadership transition or reappointment, the Sino-US relationship established in 1979 assures us that the candidates’ disturbing comments on China are negligible. Many scholars have said that during the tenure of a president, the relationship is usually rocky at first and then calm, which can be described as “first Hyde, then Jekyll.”

However, America’s return to Asia strikes many as a strategy designed to encircle China. Some believe that if Obama is re-elected and increases America’s military presence in Asia, it may sour Sino-US relations.

What Should China Do?

As a great power, it’s really a shame for China to leave such a bad diplomatic impression, whether it be with neighboring countries, Europe, Africa or the Americas. It’s as if we’ve made huge economic strides but are still losing allies. Even the relationships with a few traditional allies are just barely being maintained. Now it’s time for deep self-reflection.

The diplomacy of a country is mostly influenced by its domestic politics. The political system affects foreign policy decisions. If we use a hard-line foreign policy to divert from domestic crises, it will result in antagonism and failure.

As for the US, we’ve been paying close attention to its return to Asia and regard it as a strategy to contain China. But there’s another way to look at it.

We’re now viewing the US as an opponent, but it never intended to be one. A country of 1.3 billion people with the world’s second largest economy, nuclear weapons and a powerful military needn’t be anxious about overseas threats. America isn’t stupid. It has no desire to wage a war with a country like China.

So there’s really no alternative. For China and America, we can only coexist in peace, making joint efforts for global stability and prosperity.

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