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Bull In a China Shop: A Glimpse of the Empty China Rhetoric We'll Hear From Romney Tonight

I am on the Romney campaign’s press list, and this morning I got an article from them on Obama’s China strategy by Princeton professor Aaron Friedberg, who is a Romney campaign advisor. The article was entitled, “Obama’s China Policy is a Massive Failure.” I admire Friedberg’s work, and I had solicited from him last year an article on US-China relations that we ran in the magazine. What struck me was the difference in tone between the two articles. Last year, Friedberg wrote:

When he first took office, Barack Obama seemed determined to adjust the proportions of the dual strategy he had inherited. Initially, he emphasized engagement and softpedaled efforts to check Chinese power. But at just the moment that American policymakers were reaching out to further engage China, their Chinese counterparts were moving in the opposite direction. In the past 18 months, the president and his advisers have responded, appropriately, by reversing course. Instead of playing up engagement, they have been placing increasing emphasis on balancing China’s regional power. For example, the president’s November 2010 swing through Asia was notable for the fact that it included stops in New Delhi, Seoul, Tokyo, and Jakarta, but not Beijing. (Italics are mine.)

Friedberg has interesting criticisms of the Obama policies in his current piece, some of which he made in the earlier piece, but Obama has certainly not sharply diverged from the course that Friedberg praised last year. And he has had some successes – for instance, in pressuring China on its currency – that Friedberg omits. But whatever the case, is Obama’s policy, even at its worst, indicative of a “massive failure”—comparable, say, to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or George W. Bush’s policy toward Iraq? Or is Friedberg’s current piece a product of a respected academic crossing the line into campaign bloviation?

Friedberg also has some provocative suggestions for what a Romney administration might do (such as urging that “advanced industrial democracies must use their collective leverage to compel China to modify its predatory economic policies” and to make China “pay a diplomatic price when it persists in supporting oppressive and dangerous regimes.”)  I have two reactions here: first, good luck on forming these coalitions (which the Obama administration certainly tried to do), and secondly, there is little or no chance that a Romney administration would try to get tough with China in the way Friedberg prescribes. Romney’s current China rhetoric, which he is likely to voice tonight, isn’t directed at Beijing but at Akron.

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