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Print Edition> World
UPDATED: October 29, 2012 NO. 44 NOVEMBER 1, 2012
Debating the Debates
How China fared in this year's U.S. presidential contest
By Huang Wei

SHOWDOWN: U.S. President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney following their third and final debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, on October 22 (XINHUA/AFP)

The Commission on Presidential Debates wrapped up its 2012 debate series with a foreign policy square-off between U.S. President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney on October 22 in Boca Raton, Florida. The two candidates offered up another helping of China-bashing, but toned down their get-tough-on-China rhetoric frequently voiced on the campaign trail.

In the third and final debate, both candidates—who analysts say sounded more realistic about how far they can influence Beijing—framed China as a partner for the first time.

Romney provided the most unexpected moment in the China segment of the 90-minute debate when he pointed out, "We don't have to be an adversary in any way, shape or form," while Obama admitted that "China is both an adversary but also a potential partner."

"Romney's attitude surprised me," said Sun Zhe, Director of the Center for China-U.S. Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "Both candidates showed their moderate attitude to China, compared with their previous face-offs. But it sounds like there are hidden subtexts behind their intention."

China's official Xinhua News Agency said the next U.S. president will have to "deal with his country's sclerotic inaptness toward China's inevitable rise."

China-bashing competition

"China bashing" has become a familiar ritual during the U.S. election season since the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, said Zhu Feng, a researcher on China-U.S. relations with Peking University.

This year is no exception. China has become an inescapable target during this year's debates since the first one took place on October 3.

From harping on the trade deficit to a discussion of whether it is proper for the candidates to have investments in China, the word "China" came up 22 times—always negatively—in the second debate, and 35 times in the finale between Obama and Romney.

"It seemed like the U.S. presidential debates turned into an apparent contest over who could criticize China most harshly," Zhu said, adding that the candidates tend to distort the image of China in order to gain votes.

During the argument on domestic issues such as currency policies, trade regulation, and job creation in the second debate, Romney said Obama has been too lenient in trade disputes and promised to label China a "currency manipulator" on his first day in office if elected.

Seizing an opportunity to showcase his tough stance on China, Obama argued his administration's approach was producing results.

"The currency (renminbi) has actually gone up 11 percent since I have been president because we have pushed them hard. And we have put unprecedented trade pressure on China," said Obama. "That is why exports have significantly increased under my presidency. That is going to help to create jobs here."

In the final debate on October 22, the two candidates began to show a bit of companionship. But a few soft words were quickly overshadowed by traditional scapegoat rhetoric.

Romney repeated a line he has used throughout the campaign, charging China with keeping the value of its currency artificially low, while Obama emphasized how many cases the United States has filed against China at the World Trade Organization in his presidency. Both vowed to "make China feel pressured to play by the rules."

Obama and Romney's comments show that the United States still believes that China's rise will bring uncertainties to the United States strategically, economically and in the security area, said Wang Fan, Director of the Institute of International Relations at the China Foreign Affairs University. "They want to see China change and develop under the rules made by the United States and make sure that China's rise won't hurt U.S. interests. But the U.S. side has to be aware that the development of the relationship between China and the United States is not one-sided," he said.

Disconcerting noises

Commentators around the world gave the two candidates' performance in the debates a mixed reception, including their stance on China.

China-U.S. ties could be hurt if the presidential debates turn into a "China-bashing competition," Xinhua said in a commentary after the second debate.

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