Romney’s China hand encounters rough seas

By Benjamin A Shobert 

The struggles of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney to define a coherent China policy continued last week. The nomination of Robert Zoellick, former World Bank Group president, to head Romney’s national-security transition team has drawn the ire of prominent neo-conservatives who take issue with a variety of Zoellick’s foreign-policy positions, not least of which is his “pro-China” orientation.

The problems Romney has encountered speak to the distrust many hardline conservatives have toward his candidacy: Should they take his many changes of heart as sincere, or as political necessities? If the latter, can they trust him to govern in ways consistent with their values, or should they expect him to reverse course? These misgivings explain why many from the neo-conservative wing of the party are quick to react when Romney appears ready to tack to the moderate middle, as his nomination of Zoellick suggested.

Thus far, Romney’s public statements about China are noticeably different from those of past Republican candidates. His emphasis on China has led many pundits to proclaim that a Romney-led administration would “get tough” on Beijing. He has famously declared his intentions to identify China as a currency manipulator on “Day 1” of his presidency. All of these are interesting comments from the otherwise conventional, pro-business Republican, and markedly different from those of past Republican nominees whose emphasis on free trade and access to China was an all but explicit part of their platforms.

It is widely accepted that if elected, Romney’s position toward China would tack to these traditional Republican stances, an opinion reinforced by Zoellick’s nomination. In nominating Zoellick, it appeared Romney was signaling to the world an acknowledgement that his administration would come back to center on foreign-policy matters.

This past February, while still at the World Bank, Zoellick fielded questions from the media while at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing. In response to a question over the World Bank’s “China 2030” report, a reporter wanted to explore Zoellick’s thoughts on the “pace and direction of reform now”.

His answers embodied classic realism: “I think what’s impressive is that the leadership is even asking these questions about structural reform … what I am picking up from discussions, not only in Beijing but with provincial party secretaries, is the recognition that it’s better to undertake structural reforms while the economy is growing well.”

He expanded on this by adding: “I’ve also seen at the provincial level that people recognize that local governments, for example, might have too much control, and therefore they stymie the types of initiative we’re going to need in the future.”

It would be difficult to find a more public acknowledgement of classic Republican realism toward China: Yes, reforms have slowed, but our frustrations over their slowing should not overlook the enormous changes they have already made, or the acknowledgement by local government that more is needed.

As opposed to hard-edged ideologues like John Bolton and Condoleezza Rice, with both of whom has had reportedly fallen out of favor, Zoellick favors a classic version of Republican realism, which views China as a necessary partner, and which elevates the great good China has done to get this far.

His approach to foreign policy in general has been deeply shaped by the time he worked with former secretary of state James Baker. In 2005, Zoellick spoke at the National Committee on US-China Relations and introduced his formulation of China as a “responsible stakeholder” in matters of national security and global governance.

Beyond his views on China, Zoellick is not trusted by many hardline neo-conservatives because of his views on Israel (a supporter, but with conditions that reflect his concerns about Palestinian rights) and an approach to foreign policy in general that stresses diplomacy and coalition-building over coercion and pre-emption.

Parts of the Republican Party remain convinced that the only way to prevent another September 11 or worse is through the singular use of force wherever and whenever it is deemed necessary. In contrast to this stand, conservative holdouts like Zoellick believe the failures of Afghanistan and Iraq illustrate precisely why caution, patience, engagement and dialogue are always preferable to brute force.

Mistrust of Zoellick also speaks to the way conservative foreign policy is further regressing: Now, being “weak” on foreign policy involves more than misgivings about former president George W Bush’s response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Now, it includes being too soft on China.

Combine Romney’s politicizing US-China trade disagreements and the belief among large parts of his base that America’s approach toward China should follow similar escalating language and actions as the US has pursued with Iran and North Korea, and it becomes very easy to see how Zoellick’s realism appears antiquated.

For those within the Republican Party who have never really trusted Romney, Zoellick’s nomination adds to their fears. For them, his presence within Romney’s inner circle supports a narrative that Romney’s true center is best reflected by the times he has represented the establishment. In Massachusetts, his approach to health care, abortion, homosexual marriage and gun control all reflected the common wisdom of the state he governed. Consequently, when judged against today’s Tea Party-inspired Republican Party, Romney’s past in Massachusetts provokes deep misgivings among conservative activists.

He has managed to win the nomination through savvy campaigning, a disciplined message, and carefully walking backward from each of these positions even when doing so robbed him of key legislative achievements from his past.

Now, confronted with pushback over one of his first foreign-policy decisions, this same storyline has presented itself. His conservative critics have been quick to cry foul by suggesting that Zoellick’s nomination illuminates Romney’s true intentions to govern from the middle, precisely the sort of compromise neo-conservatives believe puts the US in jeopardy of another September 11 and that members of the Tea Party believe makes a fiscal crisis inevitable.

All of this makes for fascinating politics, but the question remains what to make of the dynamic this suggests about the direction of Republican foreign policy at large, and its application to China specifically. Overall, conservative thinking in the United States since September 2001 has embraced purity and orthodoxy over pragmatism and consensus.

Whether analyzing conservative opinions on social issues, economic matters, or foreign policy, room for compromise has become all but impossible. Whether you agree this is good or bad is irrelevant; it is has become the nature of the modern US conservative movement to value ideological purity as a virtue.

This cannot forever be walled off from US-China relations. At some point, the brittle orthodoxies that today knit the US conservative movement together will be applied to China. It is likely this reorientation will happen during a period of economic frustration, perhaps even well after ideas about austerity the Tea Party believes are key to reigniting America’s economic fires prove unable to do so. Then, ideologues will begin looking outward for another actor to blame for America’s economic insecurity. What better culprit than China, whose view on human rights, freedom, and accountability of government are diametrically opposite to those Americans hold dear?

A fire that burns with the intensity of the Tea Party needs constant fuel in the form of new ideas to castigate and new villains to pursue. If this fire runs its course within the US only to find its solutions did little to make things better, the movement’s intensity will look for a new actor to blame. Should it encounter China stalled over the possibility of future additional reforms – whether economic or political – it will be difficult to prevent that country from becoming the focus of conservative ire.

The role Zoellick would play in a Romney administration would be interesting. If allowed to take a leadership role, Zoellick would likely temper the Republican Party’s neo-conservative wing and bring back a responsible foreign policy rooted in classic conservative views. However, if Romney finds either during the run-up to, or aftermath of, pursuing the US presidency that he cannot keep Zoellick, it will signal the ongoing sacrifice of realism for ideological purity, the outcome of which will almost certainly lead to conventional wisdom about the long-term trajectory of US-China relations being turned on its head.

Benjamin A Shobert is the managing director of Rubicon Strategy Group, a consulting firm specialized in strategy analysis for companies looking to enter emerging economies. He is the author of the upcoming book Blame China and can be followed

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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