Mitt Romney's China Policy

By Michael Swaine & Oliver Palmer
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Romney can use such behavior to point out supposed shortcomings in Obama's actual policies. It also likely reflects a judgment, based in part on opinion polling, that the U.S. public is primarily concerned about China as an economic, rather than a military threat. It is easy to criticize China because there is no clear and unified group within the United States that counters such criticism. And U.S. businesses, traditionally a group in favor of peaceful, stable ties with China, are somewhat divided on the issue as it has become harder to do business in China over the last few years.

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Security Issues Bear Further Discussion

Despite his almost exclusionary focus on China's economic impact, Romney's general foreign policy ideas provide some insight into how Romney might approach U.S.-China security relations. Romney's foreign policy speech at the Citadel in South Carolina in October, along with other general statements on national security, emphasized a vision of continued U.S. predominance and advocated an "American Century" in contrast to prognostications of a coming "Chinese Century." Romney draws the distinction of these two competing futures in terms of freedom and values that emanate from the nature of a regime.

Fundamental to this vision is a perception of China as a possible threat, a belief that China can be shaped and influenced by U.S. action, and a prescription that the best way to steer China away from a threatening course is through maintaining U.S. military predominance.

Romney's Citadel speech painted China's future as yet to be determined-a choice between "a new era of freedom and prosperity," and a "darker path" including "building a global alliance of authoritarian states." The implication appears to be that China might become an ideological threat to the United States. Romney's solution comes back to his campaign narrative: focus on U.S. economic competitiveness and maintain military superiority.

Romney repeatedly advocates high defense spending to preserve predominant U.S. military strength around the world. Articulated from a perspective of American exceptionalism, this advocacy draws on Reagan's formulation of "peace through strength," a notion prevalent in the U.S. government, especially within the Defense Department.

At the same time, Romney has stated a desire to influence China to be a "responsible partner in the international system," a system in which Romney hopes to "create a predictable economic and security environment" and minimize instability. China's desire for stability and its economic interdependence with the United States is again one of Romney's chief arguments for why China will not engage in a trade war over punitive measures against alleged Chinese cheating.

Overall, Romney's choice of how to frame his China policy reflects his decision to focus on how China affects U.S. voters and how to best attack Obama regarding China. While Romney is wise not to overemphasize China, Obama's Asia policy has been considered pragmatic and successful by most observers.

If Romney wins the nomination, discussion about the future of America will likely include a debate about how China's rise will impact the United States. Romney will need to articulate a clearer conception of how to balance partnership with China, U.S. military predominance, and an emphasis on values and freedom.

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Michael Swaine is a senior associate in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Oliver Palmer is a junior fellow in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

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