Why the US election is bad for China and climate negotiations

There are barely 50 days left before the US elections, and the candidates have set aside the burdens of civility and accuracy to land even lower blows.

In the latest round of headline-grabbing verbal jabs, the candidates squared off on an issue of particular interest to us at this site: China.

Let’s just say that Obama and Romney do not engage in the spirit of thoughtful and open-minded exchange that we try to foster here at chinadialogue.

Obama touted the trade cases his administration has brought against China and accused Romney of having shipped American jobs to China during his time at the venture capital firm Bain Capital (not really true, but whatever). Romney called the trade complaints “too little, too late” and declared that a Romney administration would “stand up to China” early and often.

It’s interesting to note that when Romney and Obama talk about China, it’s in the language of confrontation. Romney’s “never stood up to China,” according to the president; the challenger says Obama has “let China run all over us.”

Even more interesting is how neither candidate feels much need to explain to their audience why, or on what issue, America should be standing up to the Asian superpower.

The final stretches of a presidential campaign are fought in what are known as “battleground,” or “swing” states – a handful of states scattered across the country that regularly shift back and forth between Democrat and Republican candidates. Many of these states – like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan – have been economically gutted by the decline of the American manufacturing sector.

When the candidates talk to voters there about losing jobs to China, it isn’t an abstract discussion about foreign trade balances. It puts a name on the unseen force that has closed the factories. It gives people a place to direct their frustration, anger and despair.

It’s a message voters are all too eager to hear.

More Americans worry
 about the US debt to China and the rise of China as a global power than about climate change. Romney’s campaign website has aposition paper outlining his China strategy, but not one on the environment. Obama talks about a WTO trade complaint against China on the campaign trail, not an alarming new report about the rise in global temperature.

This kind of rhetoric won’t serve either the American or Chinese public well when it comes time for the two countries to cooperate on what must be a global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and curb the worst effects of global warming.

Bashing China on the campaign trail may not be fair, or in the best interest of international dialogue, or good long-term foreign policy. But in a close and bitter election, it’s shrewd politics.