When Vice President Joe Biden toasted Xi Jinping at a State Department luncheon in Washington this week, he noted that his Chinese counterpart was about to head to Iowa, a visit Biden said “will assure him more delegates than I got the last time I was there.”
The A-list crowd of guests there to honor China’s leader-in-waiting laughed in approval. Xi is enjoying similarly warm hospitality now in Los Angeles, where he is finishing up his highly touted U.S. visit.
But on the campaign trail, the politics have been quite different.
The portrayal of China as a threat to U.S. economic interests has emerged as a popular foil, particularly in the GOP race for president. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has cast the Asian giant as a threat, and President Obama as a “supplicant to Beijing,” as Romney wrote in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday.
“Unless China changes its ways, on Day One of my presidency I will designate it a currency manipulator and take appropriate counteraction,” Romney wrote in his op-ed. “A trade war with China is the last thing I want, but I cannot tolerate our current trade surrender.”
One of the most glaring depictions of China as a bogeyman came in a television ad for a U.S. Senate hopeful in Michigan, the state that is now a focus of the Republican presidential race as its Feb. 28 primary approaches.
Peter Hoekstra, a former member of Congress, hired a Chinese American actress to star in a provocative spot that aired locally during the Super Bowl broadcast. In halting English, the woman thanked Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow -- or “Debbie Spend-it-now,” as the ad called her, for new federal spending and increased borrowing from China.
“Your economy get very weak. Ours get very good. We take your jobs,” the woman says. The actress has since apologized for her role in the ad, which has been pulled from the airwaves.
The Sunlight Foundation has highlighted other recent ads, some from the 2010 midterm campaign, with a similarly ominous portrayal of China. Democrats have taken their shots too -- a Democratic Senate Campaign Committee ad suggested then-Republican candidate Pat Toomey should run for Senate “in China,” not Pennsylvania.
“Let’s just say that it’s not unusual for candidates to be saying certain things about China,” Jon Huntsman, the former U.S. ambassador to China and, until recently, a Republican candidate for president, told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell on Thursday.
“It’s much easier to talk about China in terms of the fear factor than the opportunity factor.”
Huntsman, who has endorsed Romney now, said he disagreed with some of his rhetoric about the nation.
“When it comes to China, I think it’s wrongheaded when you talk about slapping a tariff on Day One. That pushes aside the reality, the complexity of the relationship,” he said.
A recent Gallup poll showed that a majority of Americans see China now as the world’s leading economic power. Yet a December Gallup survey found that only 17% viewed U.S.-China relations as unfriendly. Thirteen percent viewed China as an ally, while 63% said it is friendly but not necessarily an ally.
The Obama administration has worked hard to cultivate a relationship with Beijing. As the White House has calibrated its posture, the administration views China’s record on human rights as the biggest complicating factor for the American audience.
But there also has been some blunt talk from Obama and Biden on the economic relationship.
“Even as our cooperation grows, as we’ve discussed, the United States and China will continue to compete. And, as Americans, we welcome competition,” Biden told Xi at the same State Department luncheon. “But cooperation, as you and I have spoken about, can only be mutually beneficial if the game is fair.”