Obama's and Romney's Rhetorical Role Reversal on China

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Despite what they said in the final debate, the president doesn't think the People's Republic is an "adversary," and the former governor doesn't obviously believe it can be a "partner."

RTR39G8S-615.jpgJoe Skipper/Reuters

Other debate reactions will no doubt have more to say about the final encounter's horse-race implications, or the remarkable extent to which the two candidates wound up discussing domestic policy instead of the intended subject, foreign policy. But I want to draw your attention to an apparently curious formulation by Obama -- and subsequent role-reversal with Romney -- on China.

Near the end of the debate, Obama labeled China this way:

But with respect to China, China's both an adversary but also a potential partner in the international community if it's following the rules.

For Obama, it was a strange way of describing the country he's managed to forge a rather stable working relationship with, even if that relationship has suffered a few bumps in recent weeks. To speak of China as an adversary, and only a "potential" partner, obscures the significant steps the two countries have made when it comes to mutual foreign direct investment, as well as high-level diplomatic exchanges by public officials from both states. It also contradicts the posture of the president's administration has adopted from the beginning of his tenure, which has welcomed China's rise and stressed mutual cooperation, despite enduring disagreements between the two countries.

Since then, during Obama's first term, there certainly hasn't been an international incident of the kind that marred President George W. Bush's early days, when a U.S. military aircraft collided with a Chinese fighter jet and crashed on Hainan island, touching off a race to secure sensitive American espionage equipment and a prisoner dispute. Nor has Obama overseen a crisis such as the one that saw American planes accidentally bombing the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, under President Clinton's watch. Despite those episodes, the U.S.-China relationship has emerged mostly intact.

But if that line sounded strange, what came next from Romney's mouth was even stranger:

Let's talk about China. China has an interest that's very much like ours in one respect, and that is they want a stable world. They don't want war. They don't want to see protectionism. They don't want to see the -- the world break out into -- into various forms of chaos, because they have to -- they have to manufacture goods and put people to work. And they have about 20,000 -- 20 million, rather, people coming out of the farms every year, coming into the cities, needing jobs. So they want the economy to work and the world to be free and open.

And so we can be a partner with China. We don't have to be an adversary in any way, shape or form. We can work with them. We can collaborate with them if they're willing to be responsible.

This conciliatory rhetoric comes from the candidate who's said on multiple occasions that he would label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office, the man who laments not having a navy the size of America's surface fleet circa 1917.

The exchange between Obama and Romney was merely one of several painting the former as the hawk and the latter as the dove -- an odd turn when the president is actually the one who has had to work with the Chinese on world governance while Romney, as the challenger, has had the luxury of making campaign commitments the media will forget or overlook later.

As for the way the Chinese themselves might view this exchange, the leadership in Beijing likely recognizes that in an election-year context, candidates will say things to appease domestic audiences they aren't necessarily committed to. But one thing's certain: The fact that the People's Republic will be going through its own power transition just days after Americans head to the ballot box has China's elite watching Boca Raton about as closely as the rest of us.

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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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