Why US election Beijing bashing won't burn bridges

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During the final presidential debate, China was mentioned 22 times.

Chinese State TV noted that it was the first time the issue of China had ever been raised during one of the live TV US election debates.

The 'China bashing' hasn't gone down well in Beijing .

Republican presidential nominee Romney and President Obama discussed China during their final debate.
Republican presidential nominee Romney and President Obama discussed China during their final debate. Credit: REUTERS/Rick Wilking

"It's absolutely unfair because as you know China has no ability to damage the US, what we can do, or what we have been doing, is just importing, exporting, investing and of course we can make the US face challenges or some competition, but that's fair competition.

"I don't think this competition is unfair."

That was the view of Professor Wang Zihong, Director of Economic Studies at the Institute of American Studies in Beijing, a think tank and adviser to the government.

It's one shared by the state media. Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei urged US politicians, i.e. Obama and Romney, to welcome China's growth.

"US politicians, whatever political parties they belong to, should objectively view China's development and do more good things that will benefit China-US cooperation and mutual trust with a responsible attitude."

In other words, do grow up you two.

President Obama has pledged to try and 'even the playing field' with Chinese companies
President Obama has pledged to try and "even the playing field" with Chinese companies Credit: Reuters

Both Obama and Romney have adopted the selective soundbites of politicians fighting for election.

Neither mentioned that China has pumped billions of dollars into US Treasury bonds, propping up Wall Street and becoming the USA's largest creditor.

It raises the question: is China really a threat to the US, or a convenient scapegoat for America's economic problems?

Both the President and the Governor have been trying to out "out bash" each other.

Obama accused Romney of being "the last person who will get tough on China."

Mitt Romney has been talking tough on the issue of relations with China
Mitt Romney has been talking tough on the issue of relations with China Credit: Reuters

Romney talked about China "not playing by the rules".

However, watch carefully and neither wanted to knock themselves out.

Human rights were not mentioned, Tibet was not raised.

Both men clearly have an eye on the post-election relationship with China. They don't want Beijing bashing to burn bridges.

The US and China are frenemies, friends and enemies at the same time.

The world's first and second economies need each other, to trade, to grow and to share the century. They do this with a smile and a scowl at the same time.

President Obama with China's President Hu Jintao at the G20 Summit in Los Cabos
President Obama with China's President Hu Jintao at the G20 Summit in Los Cabos Credit: Reuters

Take the naval build up in the Pacific against a background of bitter rows over disputed islands.

There's hardly a major country in SE Asia which doesn't have a dispute with China over maritime territory.

Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam as well as Taiwan are all involved in claims which threaten, from time to time, to come to blows.

The US is moving forces into the Pacific theatre. China has launched its first aircraft carrier. China is developing a second stealth fighter.

It would only take one of these rows over a rock to escalate if someone got trigger happy; on the basis that the more guns you have the more bullets are likely to be fired.

The US is developing new missile shields and carrying out exercises like the one with Japan based on invading a small island.

It's all about preparing for the possibility, however remote, of conflict with the Chinese.

China's first aircraft carrier is seen docked at Dalian Port, in Dalian
China's first aircraft carrier is seen docked at Dalian Port, in Dalian Credit: China Daily China Daily Information Corp - CDIC / Reuters

The battles that are being fought are over trade.

Romney promises that on "day one of his presidency" he will officially brand China a "currency manipulator".

That would allow the US to impose further tariffs, making a strong point but also making cheap Chinese goods more expensive. American consumers would start paying more at the checkout.

The Global Times, a tabloid known for its nationalistic stance and close links to the one party state, was quick to highlight Mitt Romney's China credentials.

On October 18, one of its columnists said:

However much Romney talks about imposing tariffs on China, about the "level playing field", or about "currency manipulation", and however much he tries to avoid talking about companies taking advantage of cheap labour, it cannot erase the fact that in his previous career as a businessman he made millions of dollars liquidating American companies and sending their work overseas.

Much of the "China bashing" can be answered by saying "it's the Asian economy, stupid" (to misuse the worlds of President Clinton.)

Asia has always offered the West a place for cheap wages and cheap manufacturing, no one is forcing firms like Apple and Ford to move to China. It's a free market.

President Obama speaks at a White House briefing
President Obama speaks at a White House briefing Credit: Reuters

The difference, for whoever will be in the White House over the next four years, is that China is no longer just a place of low wages and cheap exports.

Recent research by the Boston Consulting Group predicts that consumer spending in China and India will hit $64 trillion by 2020.

According to the same research, the West risks squandering a market worth $10 trillion if it underestimates the middle class revolution taking place in China and India.

This social spending revolution will affect the relationship between the US and China forever.

In the next few years politicians will bash China at their peril, or risk economic retaliation from Beijing, the days of talking down to Asia could be coming to an end.

This could have been the first, and last, time we heard "China bashing" during a US presidential debate.