HONG KONG - Despite a recent arms deal with Taiwan and nuclear agreement with India, China is still in a comfortable spot with Bush. They saw those moves coming. They appreciate that his international focus is and has consistently been on the Middle East, save the Six-party talks. (But even that initiative--the administration's greatest in the region--actually provides Beijing with leverage over Washington.) After eight years in office, his goals are well-understood and his actions generally predictable. He's a known quantity.
But Bush turns into a pumpkin in a week. So is Beijing rooting for McCain or Obama?
According to Dr. Richard Hu, professor of International and Public Affairs at Hong Kong University, China's policymakers traditionally prefer Republican presidents. One reason for this is the conventional wisdom that Republicans are less focused on human rights than Democrats, and are thus less likely to link this extraordinarily sensitive issue to other areas of bilateral relations. Bush's attendance of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony in defiance of calls to boycott is a good contemporary example.
But China's elite haven't forgotten that it was Clinton who decoupled human rights conditions from the renewal of the US' Most Favored Nation status with China in 1994. Both McCain and Obama condemned China's crackdown on Tibetan monks in March. Obama called on Bush to consider skipping the Olympics, and McCain insinuated that, if he were president, he wouldn't have attended. Thus, regardless of whether there's a real difference in party ethos on human rights, in this instance the two candidates' views are comparable.
More significant to this election, says Dr. Hu, is the Republican's traditional embrace of free trade. China's elite are growing increasingly weary of what they view as protectionist sentiments from the Obama campaign. China's leadership is certainly not scared to go "to the mat" with an Obama Administration on currency manipulation, but at the same time, they'd rather not. They're also concerned that the global financial crisis may fan protectionist flames in Washington, and that a Democratic president may be more receptive to protective measures from a Democratic Congress. So on economics, Beijing is clearly in favor of McCain.
Under normal circumstances, that would be enough. But as Hu notes, recent--and frequent--references from McCain "about a 'League of Democracies'...bothers people in Beijing." They're content with the state of U.S.-China relations, and they would view a new "Democracies only" club as a serious detractor. This one issue is enough to tip the balances back into neutral territory.
With six in one and a half dozen in the other, China's leaders are not crossing their fingers for a certain outcome next Tuesday. Regardless of the unsettling themes in each campaign, Beijing "has a rather relaxed attitude toward this...election" says Dr. Y. Ren, professor of International and Public Affairs at Hong Kong University. "Past experience reveals that no matter how critical the presidential candidates are, they'll moderate their tones once they move into the White House." Hu agrees; rhetoric aside, "the structure...of the [U.S.-China] relationship will not...be turned upside down" by McCain or Obama.
Rob Sheldon is a graduate student in Security Policy Studies at George Washington University. He is currently studying politics and international affairs at Hong Kong University.
Please e-mail PostGlobal if you'd like to receive an email notification when PostGlobal sends out a new question.