For my DC event I attended a conference at the Brookings Institute regarding the China/US relationship as an issue in the 2012 election. The four panelists were Richard Bush, Kenneth Lieberthal, Joshua Metzer, and Jonathan Pollack. Although they all admitted that this has not been a huge issue in the presidential campaign they argued that this will be one of the most, if not the most important foreign policy areas for the foreseeable future.
All of the panelists mentioned that they thought that the difference between Obama and Romney on this issue is one of packaging rather than substance. While Romney may take a more hawkish tone on the campaign trail he and Obama have similar stances on issues from human rights to intellectual property issues. Lieberthal added that there has been a pattern in presidential elections where the challenger accuses the incumbent of being soft on China. If he is elected he will try to implement some of his promises but eventually reverts to the original policy. An example was Clinton’s promise to use sanctions in response to China’s human rights violations, which he eventually dropped.
Some of the panelists did remark that there is some risk that given China’s sensitive leadership transition some of the more nationalist campaign rhetoric could have a negative effect on mutual relations. If Xi Jinping or other new officials feel that they need to solidify up their base of support they may feel the need to push back more forcefully than expected. However, the general consensus was that the US/China relationship is going to remain relatively stable although there is some work to be done.