What the GOP Candidates Get Right and Wrong About China

Ron Paul would likely be Beijing's top pick for president

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Republican presidential candidates singing the national anthem during the CNN GOP National Security debate / Reuters

Truth be told, I don't think that foreign policy--other than matters related to war--is likely to play a significant role in this year's presidential election. Moreover, as decades of U.S. electoral politics have demonstrated, whatever candidates say about China is likely to bear little resemblance to what they actually do once they are in the Oval Office. Nonetheless, as a matter of character and competence, it is fascinating to look at what each of the Republican candidates has to say about China. Even though I have followed the Republican race fairly closely, I was surprised--both pleasantly and not--by what I found.

Talk the talk but don't walk the walk: Rick Perry breathes fire on China: "Communist China is destined for the ash heap of history because they are not a country of virtues. When you have 35,000 forced abortions a day in that country, when you have the cyber security that the PLA has been involved with, those are great major issues both morally and security-wise that we've got to deal with now." Well maybe, but exactly how Perry is dealing with them by courting Huawei to invest in Texas is unclear. The U.S. government has three times denied China's telecom giant business opportunities in the United States because of security concerns related to spying and the People's Liberation Army. Mr. Perry, however, has praised Huawei's "really strong worldwide reputation." The end result of candidate Perry's China policy to date? Huawei has a corporate headquarters just outside Dallas.

Make love not war: Ron Paul appears to recognize all the challenges in the U.S. - China relationship from trade to security to human rights, but his response is basically "go along to get along": stop spy plane missions, reconsider the Taiwan Relations Act, and drop the idea of a tariff on Chinese goods in retaliation for Beijing's currency manipulation. Laissez-faire rose to new heights when he opposed a congratulatory congressional resolution for Liu Xiaobo on the Nobel Peace prize. Candidate Paul leaves no doubt that he would be Beijing's pick for top dog.

It's all about the economy, stupid: Mitt Romney 's China policy is all about trade--keeping counterfeit goods out, aggressively pursuing intellectual property infringement cases, levying tariffs and sanctions on Chinese industry that have unfair trade practices, designating China a currency manipulator, and imposing countervailing duties. And much of it sounds reasonable. However, Romney will face some pretty stiff opposition from at least half of the U.S. business community that imports from China (e.g. Wal Mart). After all, a lot of Americans benefit from those cheap Chinese goods as well. And he doesn't really address the potential impacts of a trade war from his tough new China trade policy. Of course, achieving all of Mr. Romney's enforcement goals will require a steep increase in the financial and human capital devoted to trade enforcement. Does "Big Government" still play in the Republican Party?

Where's the beef?: Try as I might, I couldn't really find any China-related policy prescriptions from Rick Santorum. He denigrates President Obama's foreign policy as allowing "other powers like Russia and China to have more influence in this world." (He must have missed three months worth of "Pivot" headlines this past summer.) And he calls for going "to war with China" to "make America the most attractive place in the world to do business." I am not sure what that means, but my guess is he's not either. Hopefully his foreign policy staff will up their China IQ as the race progresses.

Nuance but not in the race: No real surprise that the greatest nuance in China policy arises from former U.S. Ambassador to China John Huntsman and former history professor Newt Gingrich. Huntsman has all his facts in line. You can agree or disagree with his opposition to a China currency bill or his desire to engage to promote political change in China--but he knows his stuff. Gingrich has seemingly refrained from too much China-bashing, and basically called on the United States to do the right thing and take action on the home front in order to be more competitive. Hard to argue with that either. The fact that neither appears to be in for the long haul will be a loss for future election-year debates over foreign policy.

Ignorance is bliss: Anyone looking for confirmation that Michelle Bachman was right to drop out of the race probably doesn't need to look much further than her comments on China in which she suggested that we follow China's example with regard to social welfare policy. She claimed that "if you look at China, they don't have food stamps...They save for their own retirement security, they don't have AFDC, they don't have the modern welfare state, and China's growing." Yes, but what they do have is 150 million people living on less than US $1 per day, a level of income inequality that exceeds that of the United States, and roughly 180,000 mass demonstrations. Is that really what she wants the United States to look like?

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.