Back in Charge: The Democratic Party and the China factor

Frank Ching | 14 Nov 2020

The Democratic Party's triumph in the midterm elections in the United States reflected to a large extent the swinging of the political pendulum, aided this year by a general dissatisfaction with the way the administration of George W. Bush has mishandled the situation in Iraq.

Congressional attention will in all likelihood continue to focus on Iraq, but other aspects of foreign policy, such as China, will be scrutinised much more closely in future than before.

It is quite natural that many observers have remarked on the new Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, who is known as a China critic, having made her name in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre by loudly opposing most-favoured-nation trading status for China.

In those days, the Democrats were using China as a stick with which to beat a Republican president. And, subsequently, during the Clinton presidency, the Republicans did the same thing, accusing a Democratic president of being soft on China.

Hopefully, the Democrats now will be thinking not only of partisan advantage but how the United States should deal with a rising China. This is an issue that will not go away, regardless of which party controls congress or holds the presidency.

It is encouraging to note that Ms. Pelosi said on November 8, when it was clear that her party would win a majority of seats in the House of Representatives: "Democrats are prepared to lead. We are prepared to govern", adding that they would work "together with the administration and the Republicans in Congress in partnership, not in partisanship." This suggests moderation, not radicalism.

As for the Bush presidency, reality dictates that it abandon the ABC policy with which it entered office ("anything but Clinton").

The former president had set a strategic partnership with China as a goal, but Mr. Bush called China a strategic competitor, not a strategic partner.

Now, it is clear that partnership with China is unavoidable. The world is the boat in which we are all passengers, and China and the United States have to work together or the boat will be in danger of capsizing.

What is needed, where China is concerned, is bipartisanship. For too many years, China has been a political football used by the party out of power to attack the party in power. But we should remember that the campaign to deprive China of MFN status, while a perennial battle, failed year after year because the president, after all, has the power of veto.

Now that power is divided between a Republican presidency and a Democratic Congress, the two parties can use this opportunity to share power and jointly craft a China policy that is for the good of the nation.

When the Bush administration came into office in 2001, it assumed a confrontational stance vis-a-vis China, expecting it to become a future adversary, as the Soviet Union had been during the Cold War. This changed after the September 11 terrorist attack on the United States, when Washington realised it had to worry about current enemies first before worrying about future ones. Besides, China could be an ally in the war on terrorism.

Now, if the American involvement in Iraq were to wind down, attention is likely to focus on Beijing again. This is not necessarily a bad thing, because Washington needs to grapple with the reality of China and its role in the world.

What should be avoided, however, is a tendency to blame China for all of America's economic problems. This may be difficult to do, in particular since China has just chalked up another record trade surplus in October. Moreover, China's foreign currency reserves, now the world's largest, reached US$1 trillion this month.

But what is happening in the world is a result of globalisation and China should not be used as a scapegoat. The United States needs to confront the many challenges of globalisation, rather than simply throwing up protectionist barriers.

In fact, the United States and China depend on each other now more than at any previous time in history. Each can do tremendous damage to the other, but only by exacting an extremely high price itself.

Both the United States and China are part of the world's problem, such as the rapidly deteriorating environment, and they are both necessarily part of the solution.

The two countries need to work together, rather than in confrontation with each other. As long as both governments keep this in mind, there may be hope for the rest of us.

Frank Ching is a Hong-Kong based commentator. 

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