Obama’s remarks on China are mostly rhetoric, some say

Magnier is a Times staff writer.

Despite fears to the contrary here, China and its burgeoning economy have never become a major issue in the grueling American presidential campaign.

As a result, Chinese observers are watching a small appearance in the final days of the race with a degree of concern, tempered by an assumption that it is mostly campaign rhetoric driven by efforts to appeal to blue-collar voters in swing states.

Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama vowed in a letter released Wednesday to use “all diplomatic means” if elected to stop China from gaining an unfair trade advantage in global markets by manipulating its currency. In comments addressed to the National Council of Textile Organizations, he also vowed to step up enforcement against unfair trade practices and increase resources to America’s primary trade watchdog, the U.S. trade representative.

“I think this is just part of election politics,” said Mei Renyi, director of American studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University, which has trained generations of Chinese diplomats. “He was writing to a textile group. At this point, I’m not too concerned.”

Others noted that there’s a long history of American candidates realizing, once in office, how much China and the U.S. need each other and how it’s best to move slowly when leveling criticism.


“Both Obama and [Sen. John] McCain are very smart,” said Jia Qingguo, an international relations professor at Peking University. “Once one of them gains power, they’ll realize that issues are more complicated than they thought, that a more reasoned approach is needed.”

But some believe pressure could extend beyond the election.

“Unfortunately, the search for villains abroad intensifies as the economy worsens at home,” said Richard Baum, director of China studies at UCLA. “So notwithstanding Obama’s relatively benign intentions, the first year of his presidency could see a sharp increase in protectionist pressures.”

China has traditionally favored a Republican in the White House. Richard Nixon’s surprise overture in the 1970s helped break decades of Chinese isolation. And the GOP’s more laissez-faire economic policies have generally meant fewer human rights headaches, from Beijing’s perspective, and less focus on lost U.S. manufacturing jobs or China’s huge trade surplus.

But Democrats have traditional strengths as well in the Asian giant’s eyes. Most notably, they tend to be less interested in selling arms packages to Taiwan. This month, the Bush administration announced the sale of $6.5 billion worth of missiles, helicopters and spare parts to the self- governing island, which China considers part of its territory.

Former President Clinton also enjoys a huge following in China with his inclusive, multilateral approach.

“China’s not been an issue, and that’s terrific,” said Banning Garrett, an analyst at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations in New York. Garrett added that a senior Chinese official recently told him that Beijing had adopted a “three noes” policy toward the United States, at least during the election: “No finger pointing, no lecturing, no America bashing.”

But voices in this increasingly powerful country are not above reminding Washington that it needs China, particularly now.

“I don’t think the U.S. with its financial crisis will pick China to start some friction, because there are other fields that require cooperation,” Mei said, citing the nearly $1 trillion in U.S. government debt held by China. “When it goes down and you hold it, you’re making a sacrifice. Billions have already been lost.”