In this U.S. election season, China has been transformed to a large extent from a foreign policy to a domestic issue, EWI’s David Firestein declared in his remarks to the Affordable World Security Conference in Washington on March 28.
Instead of focusing on human rights, he added, Americans are preoccupied with China’s growing economic clout and what this means for the U.S. economy.
Firestein, EWI’s vice president for strategic trust-building and Track 2 diplomacy, noted that 2012 represents a rare convergence of leadership transitions (or potential transitions) in the United States and China, as well as Russia and other key countries. “This makes it a very unique and significant year in the politics of U.S.-China relations,” he said.
Firestein highlighted the shifts in the perception of China in U.S. political discourse over the past two decades. China is no longer seen through a human rights prism, he explained, as was the case in the early 1990s. Instead, it is viewed through a prism of economics, trade and national competition.
In the foreign policy parts of the Republican presidential debates, he pointed out, China wasn’t even mentioned. And in his 2011 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama referred to China “not in the foreign policy section … but rather in the domestic policy section.”
Lastly, Firestein said that the issue of China is a mirror “not for a candidate’s toughness, but rather for our nation’s adequacy or inadequacy.” In one example, Firestein noted presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s recent comment that his funding priorities would be determined by asking what is “so critical that it's worth borrowing money from China to pay for.”
U.S. perceptions of China have “moved from ‘they’re different from us’ to ‘they’re beating us,’” Firestein said, adding that the coming leadership transition and election would challenge the establishment of a stable relationship between the two powers.
On March 20, Firestein was a featured speaker at the monthly meeting of the Colorado Foothills World Affairs Council, a non-profit organization focused on promoting education and an understanding of international affairs. There, he discussed Chinese foreign policy and U.S. interests in China.