It's a familiar tableau in American presidential campaigns: The party out of power runs against China policy and promises a tough new approach; the administration in power does its best with an unsatisfactory relationship. Mitt Romney is no different. His website proclaims:
"It is time to end the Obama administration's acquiescence to the one-way arrangements the Chinese have come to enjoy. We need a fresh and fearless approach to that trade relationship. Our first priority must be to put on the table all unilateral actions within our power to ensure that the Chinese adhere to existing agreements. Anyone with business experience knows that you can succeed in a negotiation only if you are willing to walk away. If we want the Chinese to play by the rules, we must be willing to say 'no more' to a relationship that too often benefits them and harms us."
Once alarmed by this sort of rhetoric, China now just sits back and waits for election season to pass. In 1979 Ronald Reagan accused Jimmy Carter of humiliating Taiwan and promised to renew official relations. In 1992 Bill Clinton proposed raising tariffs on Chinese goods to force the "butchers of Beijing" to reshape the Chinese political system. Romney's rhetoric this autumn focuses on economics rather than on high strategy or human rights, but promises an equally drastic reshaping of trade with China.
Once in office, Reagan and Clinton glumly concluded that the big changes they had promised would do more harm than good, and quietly dropped them.
Would a Romney administration be any different? Perhaps - but if there's to be a real breach, it will probably come from a different source.
Step back a bit for some perspective. American-Chinese ties have been uneasy for a generation. This is probably inevitable, given the mesh of prickly issues surrounding the relationship - an unfriendly accommodation on the status of Taiwan, an alloyed cooperation over opposing North Korea's nuclear program, growing concerns about muscular Chinese approaches to maritime sovereignty, as well as the intellectual property piracy and currency issues that Romney raises, or concerns over cyber-espionage and hacking of US government and company computers. And an often bad relationship may have structural reasons to worsen.
In a remarkable Brookings Institution dialogue, Addressing U.S.-China Strategic Distrust, Chinese scholar Wang Jisi describes a mindset among Chinese government and scholarly elites that could easily push the relationship into crisis. He describes a consensus, or near-consensus, in Beijing that the structure of global politics makes a basically cooperative relationship all but impossible:
"America's financial disorder, alarming deficit and unemployment rate, slow economic recovery and political polarization are viewed as but a few indicators that the United States is headed toward decline. ... It is strongly believed in China that the ultimate goal of the United States in world affairs is to maintain its hegemony and dominance and, as a result, Washington will attempt to prevent the emerging powers, in particular China, from achieving their goals and enhancing their stature."
If Wang's description is accurate - with a confident and suspicious Chinese elite, viewing the United States as inevitably driven to oppose Chinese goals based on a fear of losing power, and basing their own decisions on this premise - then the future is likely to be difficult regardless of American policy choices.
But if American choices over the next year are the decisive factor, then the future is likely to be much like the past two decades - mixing suspicion with cooperation, mutual economic dependence with arguments over policy.
A recent in-depth study of American opinion on China, conducted this summer by the Pew Research Center, reveals a public sympathetic to abstract calls for "toughness," but uninterested in a fight. Pew found that 45 percent of Americans want a "tougher" China policy, but 39 percent say the Obama administration's approach is "about right." Likewise a very large majority of the public, 86 percent, considers it "very important" or "somewhat important" to be tough with China on economic issues; but an even larger majority of 88 percent maintains that it is "very important" or "somewhat important" to build a strong relationship with China. The picture, then, is of a public that's not totally satisfied with policy, but by no means wants to walk away.