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Special> Obama's First Visit to China> Opinion
UPDATED: November 23, 2009 NO. 47 NOVEMBER 26, 2009
Domestic Needs, International Relations
Washington listens closely to values and interests of domestic audiences when shaping its policy toward China


Longtime Speaker of the House Tip O'Neil once famously said, "All politics is local." While he was reflecting on representative government and the nature of elections in America, public opinion and domestic politics affect foreign policy, including U.S.-China relations.

In the United States, China policy is fashioned by America's system of representative government and shaped by a number of factors which generally coincide with self-perceived national interests that consider domestic public opinion amongst other factors. Pocketbook issues such as trade and employment are obvious domestic contributors to foreign policy, as are popular images of China in the American public imagination.

U.S. public opinion is a major contributor to political decision-making, which ultimately affects foreign policy. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger recognized the importance of public opinion when he supported the decision in 1971 to "break the ice" with China by sending the U.S. table tennis team. Today, American public opinion is carefully tracked through extensive polling, while an active civil society contributes to public debate about key issues.

Congress in particular is especially attuned to domestic issues and local opinions because they are elected by constituents in their state, not by a national electorate. The average size of a House congressional district is 600,000 citizens (smaller than many Chinese counties), making members of the House of Representatives particularly focused on issues that directly affect their constituents. This causes them to place larger international issues such as U.S.-China relations in that local context. Because of Congress' orientation toward grassroots issues, they are a key channel linking local-level interests and perceptions, such as job creation, trade, or "American values" with international relations.

There is a tendency for Americans to believe that their values are universal and should not be limited to its shores. These values include expectations for freedom of speech, freedom to practice any religion, accountable government, and determined protection of civil liberties and individual rights. President Barack Obama affirmed the importance of these values at the opening of the first round of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington, D.C. in July, stating that "support for human rights and human dignity is ingrained in America." While differences between Chinese and American perspectives of human rights and individual freedoms are a cause for tension, the Obama administration has decided to situate human rights in the context of the overall strategic imperatives of the U.S.-China relationship.

Trade is a critical issue where local interests in both China and the United States directly affect policy. China's economic growth has been truly impressive and China has successfully lifted millions out of poverty. Millions of rural farmers migrate to urban areas to work on construction sites building infrastructure and in factories making products for export. China's success has not come without costs, however, including significant economic impacts on countries that otherwise benefit from cheap Chinese goods.

America has lost numerous manufacturing jobs since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, and while it is debatable how many have been lost to any one country, there is a perception amongst critics that cheap Chinese labor and a rapid influx of Chinese goods have disadvantaged American workers and possibly cost millions of jobs. While there is little convincing evidence to support this assertion, the perception amongst the public, the media and many organizations is entrenched. These voices are often well organized and funded, and understand the American system of government, enabling them to effectively make their case to both the congressional and executive branches of government.

These voices are often called "special interests." While sometimes considered a derogatory term, these specific constituencies are an important component of America's system of representative government. Unlike in China, most civil society entities—particularly associations, foundations and labor unions—are independent of the government and often advocate for specific policy outcomes on behalf of the groups or concerns they represent. These groups are effective at representing the interests of individuals and constituents and ensuring that elected officials are responsive.

In the United States, numerous groups are seeking explicit outcomes significant to the U.S.-China relationship and try to influence both the U.S. and Chinese governments to shape policy and protect their interests. These groups maintain strong relationships with all branches of government and many are effective at mobilizing grassroots support or opposition to congressmen in their home districts, making them particularly important voices during election cycles.

Finally, China has loomed large in the American public imagination as far back as colonial times. Europeans were attracted by Chinese fashions and design, creating a style known as Chinoisery which was popular in early America. Most recently, the Beijing Olympics directed the world's attention to China, showcasing China's grandeur in contrast to the many domestic challenges it faces, while the riots in the Tibetan plateau highlighted China's development challenges in minority communities.

The food and product safety crisis in 2007 was another essentially local issue that dramatically affected the bilateral relationship. Driven by public outrage and fear, the crisis resulted in changing trade practices and new bilateral government initiatives. As a consequence of the product safety scandal, U.S. and Chinese food and drug officials now reside in each other's capitals, increasing mutual understanding of their respective regulatory systems and improving the oversight of trade in safe products.

The U.S.-China relationship is naturally shaped by each side's perception of the other and responsive to local interests, domestic politics and the means by which they influence foreign policy. This is not to say that foreign policy is a constant victim to local politics, or that one side's interests are necessarily harmed by foreign policies that take domestic preferences into account. The key is striking a balance between meeting local needs and ensuring foreign engagement benefits local and international constituents.

The author is director of China Studies and Starr Senior Fellow at The Nixon Center in Washington, D.C.

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