The full glory of U.S. presidential election politics is on vivid display this year as Republicans and Democrats select their standard bearer for the November election.
Each party has an anti-establishment candidate – Donald Trump for the Republicans and Bernie Sanders for the Democrats – who has confounded the pundits by winning multiple primaries and generating significant public support. As of late March, Hillary Clinton seems on her way to clinching the Democratic nomination, but for the Republicans, it’s anyone’s guess. Trump is unlikely to secure a majority before going into the Republican National Convention, which means a brokered convention and perhaps a more mainstream candidate in the end.
The election campaign is a regular topic of conversation among Chinese officials, business leaders and the urban elite.What many observers may have first considered to be just a form of entertainment is now taken much more seriously. What impact will this presidential transition have on U.S.-China relations and the interests of our members? We may be a non-partisan organization, but that doesn’t mean the politics of this election don’t matter to us.
Let’s begin with some reassuring observations. The U.S. has had many presidential transitions since the normalization of U.S.-China relations in 1979, and our relationship with China has done more than just survived – it has prospered. In past campaigns, candidates have made strong statements about China only to change their tune once in office. This is a familiar pattern and the current primary season should be no exception. A second positive consideration is the strong continuity in U.S.-China relations since 1979. There may be more questions today about the wisdom of Washington’s “engagement” strategy with China – a strategy that already has a significant hedging element – but it is a strategy that is likely to continue, even if there are more adjustments around the edges.
What then is there to worry about? For starters, at a time when public opinion polls show that negative sentiment toward China is on the rise, anti-China rhetoric from the candidates only adds fuel to the fire. Even if the rhetoric cools after election day, the impact of that rhetoric won’t just go away. The current tone of public discourse about China could further harden public attitudes, even if the candidates don’t really mean what they say.
Second, the attacks on China often include attacks on free trade and globalization. This is a direct threat to the interests of our members. As the primary season shows, many Americans are angry. They are concerned about the loss of manufacturing jobs and stagnant wage growth and blame China for these difficulties. This has already complicated prospects for passage of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), even though China is not a party to those negotiations. It also means that the environment for Senate passage of a Bilateral Investment Treaty – if such a treaty can be finished before time runs out for the Obama administration, which is a big “if” – is more difficult than ever.
All of this underscores the importance of our advocacy work and the need to extend that work beyond the halls of government power in Washington, D.C. There is a greater need than ever to explain to communities across the United States how healthy relations with China helps the United States too. This is part of the Chamber’s mission but too big a task for any one organization. Our member companies have a role to play too. When you travel to the United States, seek out opportunities in your communities and with the media. Tell your story. Be honest about the problems you face in China but also remind people that there have been plenty of successes. Add some balance to the current discussion of China in the United States. We need it.