What Should the U.S. Presidential Candidates Be Saying on China?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Barely eight weeks before the United States presidential election, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and her Republican rival Donald Trump have said surprisingly little about how they plan to address China—in areas ranging from the global economy and security to the sustainability of our planet. To kick off this week’s conversation, former Ambassador to China Winston Lord and ChinaFile publisher Orville Schell talked with Emily Parker, a journalist who has written extensively about China, in a public program designed to spark a discussion about how Washington should engage Beijing under the next administration. —The Editors


Nobody knows what China policy would look like under Trump, above all not Trump himself. This man is incoherent and has no idea what he’s going to do. We don’t know what his beliefs are. We don’t know whether or not he’ll change them. We don’t know who is advisors will be. It’s entirely impossible to project. The only thing he’s talked about is slapping on 40-50 percent tariffs and starting a trade war.

From the Chinese perspective, they’re probably tempted to vote for Trump. They don’t particularly like Hillary Clinton, particularly because of a speech she gave at ASEAN that got the U.S. involved in the South China Sea disputes. They know that Trump, if he gets in, will completely wreck America’s position on the world stage. That must be attractive to some extent. All our alliances will go down the tube, we will be disliked everywhere from Mexico to every Muslim country. Democracy will be given a black eye.

But I think the more sober Chinese, including China’s President Xi Jinping, recognize he’s too unpredictable, that we could stumble into a war with this guy.

I would say to the Chinese, I think Clinton will work for good relations. She may be a little firmer in certain areas, but it will mostly be continuous with policies over eight or nine presidents of both parties. A mixture of competition and cooperation. Something the Chinese can predict and get along with.

Both our countries think we’re exceptional in different ways. We think we’re the city on the hill. China thinks it’s the middle kingdom. But on one hand they have humiliation from the West that spans 150 years, and on the other hand they have this history of being the middle kingdom. They have a complicated mixture of arrogance and insecurity and some xenophobia, which complicates things. On the U.S. side, look how we keep changing our views of China. If you put these historical attitudes and the oscillations in our relationship over time, no wonder we have a problem.

It isn’t fair to say Barack Obama hasn’t paid enough attention to China. What he hasn’t done—and I couldn’t get Bill Clinton to do this either when I was working for him—is to give a major speech on China, to have a strategic overview. I think that’s been a major failing, both to put into perspective some of the positive things as well as the negative things. It’s such an important relationship that it’s difficult for the president to fully delegate it. Even in the transition period, I’d find someone very close and very prestigious who’s close to the president elect, and start talking to the Chinese and try to turn this relationship around. I think we should make that effort.

We have to invest in our future in order to be more competitive with China, whether it is education or science and technology, so we can compete with China. The Asian rebalance—we’ve done a lot. But the problem here is that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is not going to get through our Congress. You have Hillary herself running away from it, but I don’t think she’ll get away with it politically. And then you have the Republicans who are anti-trade and TPP. TPP is crucial for our whole China position and trade position. And we should do what we’ve been trying to do: namely, search for whatever areas of cooperation are practical and unsentimental where our interests overlap.

One of the great American brands that we forget about is a freer life. We all have friends who are coming to America from China, buying a business, a house, got their kids in boarding school aspiring to go to Harvard. The biggest brand of all is that immigrants want to come here. The Chinese are leading the pack.

How can these two candidates not mention the most important issues of the world? They’re certainly not talking about the U.S.-China relationship. If they did talk about it, would that be a good thing? It probably wouldn’t be. Can a human being, can a country, ignore their past? Could Germany have done it? Germany didn’t do it in some very elemental ways. This question of an edited narrative presented by the state and the prevention of other narratives entering as correctives is deeply toxic in the long run. I don’t think it is going to be very easy. A country cannot have committed such massive abuses against its own people and have not come to terms with them and still be stable and healthy and comfortable in the world.

I think we’re at a crossroads moment. We need to understand if it’s really possible to continue down this engagement road.

Let’s assume Hillary gets elected. (I don’t know what to assume if Trump gets elected.) First thing she should do is tell Bill to pack his bags and go to Beijing, and smoke this thing out for a couple of months. Go to Xi Jinping and say, “This is a critical tipping point moment.” We either get some deeper, better, more trusting understanding about our intentions and our ability to collaborate, or we’re going to both rue the day because we’re going to fall into a more adversarial position. There’s no other human being who has the status of a former president, which is immensely important to China. Bill Clinton could clarify the situation, and be at a high enough level to get China’s attention, give them face, and really express America’s sentiment, deep yearning, and hope that we can somehow work together.

If America is going to pretend to be a world leader, it ought to reflect a bit on how it might lead in this circumstance in some new and more active ways. We are obliged to make as extreme an effort as we can—and many presidents have done this—to see if we can breathe more life into engagement. That’s our only hope. It’s a good hope, and if we can, great. And if we can’t, then we really have to go up on our mountain and reflect on the alternative.

On the one hand, I agree with Orville, a friend and also a mentor, that Clinton and Trump have not talked much about the important U.S.-China relations. But I am glad that China has not been mentioned as much as in previous campaigns. In every speech in the 2012 race Romney swore to name China a currency manipulator on day one in office. Trump has talked about slapping tariffs of 45 percent or more on Chinese exports and still says China is manipulating the yuan to keep it artificially low. Anyone making such outlandish remarks only makes a joke of himself.

A serious and rational talk about U.S.-China relations is not possible during the increasingly toxic U.S. presidential race. Recalling the 2012 GOP presidential debate, Ambassador Jon Huntsman, the one candidate with the best China knowledge, was made to look the least relevant when discussing U.S. China policy. That’s how toxic the race is.

China has become the bogeyman of U.S. presidential race in past decades. Candidates say whatever they think will please voters, instead of resorting to rational argument.

I don’t agree with Ambassador Lord’s characterization of Chinese and Chinese leaders as anti-American. If you look at the Pew survey, anti-Americanism is strong not in China, but the Middle East. Most Chinese love America and Americans. That is why they want to travel to the U.S. and send their children to American colleges. But there is an anti-American sentiment when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. The disastrous U.S. foreign policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and many other countries have fueled such sentiment. This is not just true in China, but among some U.S. allies in Europe.

It’s true that China’s foreign policy has shifted from a low-profile approach to a more active play on the regional and global stage. It has been and will continue to be a learning process for China. China has done some great things in launching the AIIB and the One Belt and One Road inititative, and in international peacekeeping. China could have handled the South China Sea issue better despite the clear geopolitical challenge from the U.S. rebalance strategy.

But the U.S. and some other countries have much to do to adjust their mentality to the new global reality: China and other big emerging countries India and Brazil deserve a bigger say. In the 1980s and 1990s, China didn’t compete with the U.S. economically, but the rise of China to the world’s second largest economy has changed the dynamic, making many Americans nervous, just like a rising Japan did in the 1980s and 1990s, despite the fact that Japan was a U.S. ally.

China has done better than the U.S. in areas such as infrastructure, but there are lots of things in China that remain unenviable. It’s not dissimilar from the U.S., where a dysfunctional Washington has tarnished the American model in recent years. Both countries have major things to fix at home before pointing their fingers at the other.

The next U.S. president should pay even more attention to expanding cooperation with China because the whole world—and especially the Asia-Pacific—is looking at how well China and the U.S. get along. I am not saying that they should paper-over differences. Many differences will remain for a long time. But they should respect the other while addressing their differences constructively, avoiding President Obama’s rhetoric: “China should not make the rules, we should.” That language is destructive and does not take the bilateral relationship seriously.

Part of the answer lies in the fact that neither Trump nor Clinton met Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang in New York in mid-September to attend United Nations meetings, while both candidates met with the President of Egypt, in town for the same multilateral events.

Wouldn’t a drop-in meeting with Li by either candidate have been an effective way of communicating a message? I have no way of knowing whether either side made any attempt to schedule such a meeting. Perhaps it’s reasonable to suspect that the shared feeling about the current state of China-U.S. relations is not laissez faire enough to allow that sort of meeting to materialize in the first place.

On the American side, there seems to be a sense that candidates’ articulations about China increasingly matter, not only in terms of U.S. policy to come but also as an invitation for China to react. To what extent China will feature in Americans’ vote on election day is a lot harder to ascertain.

On the Chinese side, if you leave aside some of the media hype for a moment, it’s hard to grapple with the level of emotion in some of the American rhetoric. Part of the ‘non reaction’ by Chinese can be attributed to a need for better language skills. Often implied meanings are lost in translation from English. It’s even harder for the majority of Chinese to understand the American social context that gives rise to the candidates’ heated articulations.

Of course, for both China and the United States, the way leaders talk about approaching each other does matter. This in spite of the multiple layers at which the two societies already interact. Leaders’ rhetoric is important for both countries, as it can guide a convergence of domestic opinions about approaching the other country and its complex mass of actors and interests. Guiding domestic opinion can be as hard as getting agreement from diplomats across the table.

Nevertheless, there is a growing level of recognition in both societies about the levels of autonomy— even in defiance of its leader. On non-military issues, this tendency is positive. In the area of military relations, serious attention must be paid to keeping open direct communication between leaders and officers at all ranks.

Last but not least, the day when meetings between Chinese and American heads of state do not take months to plan, and when American presidential candidates and Chinese leaders-in-waiting find it useful to schedule face-to-face meetings, the value of their comprehensive policy speeches will drop. That, in turn, will be another sign of strength in the bilateral relationship.

It is hardly surprising that both candidates have remained largely silent on China. It’s probably for the best. In order to placate American voters, Trump and Clinton need to signal that they will be tough on China. But in doing so they will likely alienate China and will get off to a bad start with Xi Jinping’s government before having even moved into the Oval Office.

However, China did feature somewhat prominently in the early primaries. Last year, Donald Trump said he would not hold a state dinner for China’s President Xi Jinping but instead take him to McDonald’s for a Big Mac. Since then, numerous bursts of anti-international trade bravado suggest that, if anything, he would try to contain China economically. Such bluster will hardly be the answer to the problems the U.S.-China relationship faces. I recently set aside time to read Trump’s Art of the Deal, from which I could only conclude that his dealings with China would likely be anything but artful. My only suggestion here would be the following: Trump needs to realize that addressing Xi Jinping in a meeting will call for a different tone than the one he has employed when attacking organized tenant groups, pressuring New York City officials into tax abatements, or shouting “You’re Fired!” at TV contestants.

Winston Lord already mentioned Hillary Clinton’s speech at ASEAN a few years ago, but China’s dislike of the democratic nominee goes back even further. At the 1995 Fourth UN World Conference on Women, which was held in Beijing, she gave, then as first lady, a stern speech that hinted at China’s human rights record by saying that “women’s rights were human rights.” The speech was censored and marked the beginning of a long and testy relationship between Clinton and China. Those feelings are not going to go away overnight. Clinton, who has established a reputation as being tough on China, may need to find a way to loosen things up. Engaging the help of former President Bill Clinton, as Orville Schell suggested, may well be a good start.

In any case, both candidates should be as vocal as possible about issues where there is commonality between China and the U.S. Most significant here is climate change. At the recent G20 summit held in Hangzhou, China, Xi Jinping and Barack Obama agreed to ratify a landmark climate deal. This deal represents a rare moment of successful collaboration. These successes need to be celebrated and the presidential candidates should not be shy about applauding them. The people of both China and the United States desperately need reassurance that the U.S.-China relationship can be a constructive and positive one.