x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Obama and McCain on the same policy page

Democratic candidate sounds more conciliatory, Republican uses strategy announcement to take a swipe at his rival

Beijing // Barack Obama and John McCain, the US presidential candidates, announced their strategies for dealing with China this week, both advocating closer ties and co-operation on trade issues, nuclear non-proliferation, climate change and geopolitics. Neither candidate, however, announced any concrete polices or anything surprising. In fact, they barely differed.

The strategies were posted on Sunday on the website of the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing and will be published in China Brief, the chamber's magazine, on Monday. Mr Obama said the United States and China face challenges that will require "fresh thinking" in the coming years, but he provided no example of what this would be. The Democratic senator was a bit more conciliatory than Mr McCain, accepting mutual responsibility for some of the differences between the two sides. "The United States and China have heavy, if different, responsibilities to meet this vital challenge," he said. "For too long, however, each has pointed a finger at the other's attitudes as an excuse for not itself doing more. That must stop."

He said the United States and China, as the world's two largest consumers of oil and the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases, had to work together to reduce climate change. He called on China to make basic adjustments to ensure its sustained economic growth, including adopting practices that are "more environmentally sustainable and less energy intensive". Mr Obama said that, as the world's largest economy, the United States must make serious adjustments to remain competitive in the 21st century, including ending the "fiscal irresponsibility" that has led to record high deficits and a record low savings rate, breaking the US addiction to oil, and investing in renewable technologies and energy efficiency.

He took a slightly stronger stance on trade issues, calling on China to "play by the rules" in world trade. He said China's current growth is unbalanced and called on Beijing to increase falling domestic demand by improving its social safety net and upgrading its financial services sector "to bring its consumption in line with international norms". Central to rebalancing the economic relationship between the two countries, Mr Obama said, was a change in China's currency practices. "Because it pegs its currency at an artificially low rate, China is running massive current account surpluses," he said. "This is not good for American firms and workers, and not good for the world, and ultimately likely to produce inflation problems in China itself."

He vowed that as president he would "use all diplomatic avenues available" to seek a change in Beijing's currency policies, to make a serious effort to combat intellectual property piracy and to deal with regulations in China that discriminate against foreign investors and other unfair trading practices. Mr Obama called for the two militaries to improve the quality of contacts and the quality of their engagement, and while noting real differences between the two sides, he said he looked to China to work with the United States to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, halt genocide in Darfur and to stop the slide towards anarchy in Zimbabwe.

He said protecting human rights and moving towards democracy and rule of law would better enable China to reach its full potential. "Such a change will not weaken China, as its leaders may fear, but will provide a firmer basis for long-term stability and prosperity," he said. Mr McCain said the United States needed to remain unequivocally committed to Asia and free trade. Taking a swipe at his Democratic rival, Mr McCain said that "some American politicians - including the Democratic candidate for president - are preying on fears stoked by Asia's dynamism; rather than encouraging American innovation and entrepreneurship, they instead propose throwing up protectionist walls that will leave us all worse off".

Despite his argument for free trade, Mr McCain echoed almost the same words as his opponent, however, urging China to meet its obligations and commit to opening its markets and protecting intellectual property rights and to co-operate to address the problem of climate change. Mr McCain said China's growing power and influence obligated it to be a "responsible stakeholder in global politics" and said it should show its intentions by being more transparent about what he called Beijing's "significant military build-up" and by working with the world to "isolate pariah states". Finally, he called on China to guarantee the human rights of its citizens.

Although Sino-US relations have not been a central issue in the US presidential election so far, relations between the two countries are bound to be a challenge for the next president of the United States. But it is unlikely that there will be any fresh new initiatives towards China. Some Republicans charge that Mr Obama will adopt dangerous protectionist policies towards China. However, the Democratic candidate has surrounded himself with a team of prominent China advisers, many with former links to Bill Clinton, and it is anticipated that Mr Obama's China policy will be similar to that of the Clinton administration's.

These advisers include Anthony Lake, a former national security adviser; Jeffrey Bader, a former member of the national security committee; Ken Lieberthal, another Clinton-era member of the committee; Mike Lampton of the Nixon Center; Evan Mederios of the Rand Institute, and Derek Mitchell, former special assistant for Asian and Pacific affairs. Some of this group are known to be realists regarding China, if not conciliatory.

Every US candidate for president in recent years has taken a tough public stance on China regarding trade and human rights, with the exception of George H W Bush, the current president's father. However, usually within the first six months to a year of taking office, economic and political realities pull the new administration back towards the centre and softer polices. This is exactly what happened during the Clinton and Bush administrations.

In the final analysis, America's common interests with China far outweigh the differences. Despite the tough talk, little should be expected in the way of real change, no matter who gets elected in November. pmooney@thenational.ae