Listen to this article
When Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in Washington next month for his first state visit to the US, he will be jumping into the kind of political cauldron the Communist party does not tolerate in China.
As Beijing struggles to contain the market crash, Republican presidential contenders are taking potshots at the Chinese leader. Scott Walker, the Wisconsin governor, this week urged President Barack Obama to rescind his invitation to Mr Xi.
“Americans are struggling to cope with the fall in today’s markets, driven in part by China’s slowing economy and the fact that they actively manipulate their economy,” Mr Walker said.
“Rather than honouring Chinese President Xi Jinping with an official state visit . . . President Obama should focus on holding China accountable over its increasing attempts to undermine US interests.”
Mr Walker was following on the heels of Donald Trump, the bombastic real estate magnate leading the Republican polls, who took a break from attacking illegal immigrants to aim his wrath at China.
In addition to saying he would serve Mr Xi a Big Mac to protest against the recent Chinese currency devaluation, Mr Trump tweeted: “Markets are crashing — all caused by poor planning and allowing China and Asia to dictate the agenda.”
China has long served as a bogeyman in US presidential elections. Whether Bill Clinton referring to the “butchers of Beijing” in reference to the Tiananmen Square massacre, George W Bush attacking Mr Clinton for being soft on China or Mr Obama touting the need for alliances to challenge Beijing, US presidential contenders have long lambasted China while vowing to take a tougher stance than the White House incumbent if elected president.
But some analysts say China is sparking a different degree of anger now for several reasons: its growth as an economic power, its assertive actions in the South China Sea, rampant cyber attacks, theft of intellectual property rights and the creation of a climate that is less welcoming to foreign business.
Frank Jannuzi, president of the Mansfield Foundation, which promotes US-Asia relations, said there had been a bipartisan consensus since Richard Nixon went to China in 1972 that the US would profit by engaging the country. But he said the consensus had almost unravelled because companies had become “ increasingly disenchanted” with China.
“In Washington there has always been a debate between the China hawks and the Panda-huggers. The balance keepers used to be business,” said Mr Jannuzi, who advised Joe Biden in his 2008 run to be the Democrats’ nominee for president.
“You are going to see many presidential candidates view China’s moment of economic turmoil as an opportunity to push them . . . because they can combine the anxiety of the American people about the way China’s economy could hit their retirement accounts with the anxiety that has long been there in elite policy circles about China’s international policy behaviour.”
Chris Johnson, a former top China analyst at the CIA, said the rhetoric on China was “different from the standard stuff” because Beijing refused to address US concerns on issues such as cyber security.
“The comments from Walker and the others are irresponsible,” said Mr Johnson. “But it does put the administration on the defensive . . . because they will have to go hard on these issues.”
Mr Johnson added that China had become a victim of its own success and could not rely on the “hide your strength, bide your time” strategy promoted by Deng Xiaoping. “Suddenly these guys who were doing well, but doing well invisibly, are out there in a way that they weren’t before. They’re an easy target.”
The China-bashing has implications for Mr Obama, who spent much of this year deflecting demands from Capitol Hill to include binding provisions to prevent currency manipulation in a Pacific Rim trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Helped by Republicans, the administration saw off legislation to impose trade sanctions on any country deemed to be manipulating its currency for economic gain. But a major component of the White House argument was the perceived success of its economic diplomacy with China as signalled by the appreciation of the renminbi in recent years.
Beijing has undermined that argument with its devaluation. Moreover, while China is not in the TPP, its move prompted Vietnam, a TPP member, to follow suit, helping critics to bring the question of currencies back to the fore.
“The force of the issue is much stronger now that China has devalued and Vietnam has followed,” said Gary Hufbauer, a former US Treasury official now at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “It makes the going much, much harder.”
Mr Obama has been selling the TPP as the economic backbone of the US “pivot” to Asia and its geopolitical response to the rise of China. With its currency move, China has complicated the path for a US-led trade zone in its backyard that would cover 40 per cent of global economic output and could, by virtue of size, complicate Beijing’s regional ambitions.
Mr Xi will probably hear a cacophony of complaints during his US visit. Mr Jannuzi said that while China was usually capable of ignoring what leaders understand is red meat for political campaigns, the delicate domestic situation may make it more difficult for Beijing to turn a blind eye to the criticism.
“At a time of economic weakness when they might be prone to bolster their own nationalistic behaviour . . . there is a risk that China may take some of this rhetoric more seriously, as it might serve their own domestic purposes.”