Republican candidates bash China at our own peril

As 17 Republican candidates try to get noticed, and 16 of them struggle to compete with The Donald, perhaps we should not be surprised to hear crazy rhetoric and outlandish ideas. In recent days, Chris Christie has proposed that all legal visitors to the United States be tracked every minute, like FedEx packages. Mike Huckabee has compared Planned Parenthood to the Islamic State because they both “take people’s heads off.” And I haven’t even gotten to Donald Trump.

The brunt of this extremism has been borne by immigrants, especially Mexicans. It’s crude and obnoxious but ultimately inconsequential. The policies being proposed could never be enacted or implemented. And although Mexicans might be deeply offended — and rightly so — their country has to find a way to make peace with its gigantic neighbor to the north. None of this is true about China, the new target of irresponsible Republican rhetoric. China is the world’s second-largest economy, almost 2½ times the size of the next largest, Japan. Even if growth slows substantially, China will continue to have seismic effects on the global system.

Scott Walker has declared that the upcoming state visit of China’s president, Xi Jinping, should be canceled. Marco Rubio would allow Xi to come but downgrade his trip and use it as an opportunity to “speak bluntly to this authoritarian ruler.” In a speech billed as outlining his foreign policy, Rubio argued that China is “a rising threat to our economic interests” and “a growing danger to our national security.” Christie explained that Washington needs a “military approach” to China. Trump goes further and is coarser.

I asked the senior-most foreign policy statesman in the Republican Party, Henry Kissinger, what he makes of this rhetoric. “It is foolishness,” he said, “but dangerous foolishness. It could have extremely grave repercussions.” I also asked Hank Paulson, the most recent Republican treasury secretary, who has visited China more than 100 times over the past 25 years and negotiated with the Chinese as a businessman, government official and conservationist. “This summit means a lot to both countries and provides an opportunity to get important things done,” Paulson said. “But particularly, because China is experiencing some economic problems at home, if we slight them or overplay our hand, they may leave questioning their ability to work with us. That would be terrible for both nations.”

Part of the problem is that China’s government remains a black box and few people understand what is happening there — which makes it easy to ascribe malign intentions to Beijing’s every move. Take, for example, the Chinese central bank’s recent decision to allow its currency to fall — instantly denounced by politicians in Washington as an effort to flood the U.S. market with cheap goods. Over the past few years, the renminbi had appreciated substantially against the dollar and the yen. The Chinese government appeared to be responding to Western pressure to allow market forces to reign, which in this case made the currency fall. That is why the International Monetary Fund praised Beijing’s decision to devalue. And when the renminbi fell too far, Beijing spent an estimated $200 billion trying to prop it up — hardly the actions of a government trying to devalue. As with the stock market, Beijing’s policies have been inconsistent and ineffective, but that does not mean that they are evil.

“From the rhetoric I hear,” Kissinger told me, “one would imagine that China has decided to embark on a series of policies, economic and military, that threaten the United States. What is really going on is that China is in the midst of an enormous transformation, economic and political. . . . The internal turmoil in the country today is comparable only to the Cultural Revolution.” And, he noted, it would be far better for the United States if China makes this transition to a more stable economy successfully.

The Republican rhetoric on China, Mexico and immigration reveals a breakdown of the party’s ideological vision and internal discipline. For decades, Republicans have favored internationalism, engagement and free markets. In 2016, it is quite possible that the party’s nominee will be populist, nativist and protectionist.

The consequences of this new climate of China-bashing could be serious. “It might turn out that over time we determine that it is not possible to cooperate with China,” Kissinger said. “But we should exhaust every effort to have a serious, constructive relationship. If not, the tensions will build, misunderstandings will grow, and I worry that we would find ourselves in an atmosphere similar to that of Europe before World War I — a war no one wanted but no one knew how to stop.”

© 2015, Washington Post Writers Group