After the Election Ends, China Will Be Complicated Again

Posted by Dave Burdick

I made a fuss over the lack of climate dialogue in this almost-almost-over campaign season and then, much to my surprise, it kinda-sorta became an issue in the worst possible way and now it's something people are thinking about as they try to decide who is best to lead our country for the next four years. 

As the election winds down, the big money has been spent, the final relevant numbers and surprises for the season are theoretically out in the open (unless, I suppose, The Donald has any last-second drive-time DJ stuff he wants to pull), it's time to think about other issues that President Barack Obama—or a President Mitt Romney—will face, no matter who wins.

In particular, there are huge parts of our trade relationship with China that haven't gotten enough attention.

Foreign Policy makes the case that talk of Chinese human rights is conspicuously absent from the discussion this year (despite a lot of references to China and trade)—and that the issue can be viewed through an economic lens:

China gains a competitive advantage from cheap labor, lax environmental protection laws, and expropriated land. Beijing will continue to enjoy those advantages so long as Chinese workers are denied the right to form independent labor unions, Chinese people are punished for demanding clean air and water, and Chinese peasants are pushed off their land without fair compensation.

And our frenemendship—frenmity—look, I don't know what you call it, our relationship—has repercussions far away from either China or the U.S.

Some in Sub-Saharan Africa are pondering the same question we are—who's better for them, Romney or Obama? Others ask a broader question: Will the U.S. or China be the better friend to the continent in the long term?

In 2009, China overtook the United States as Africa's largest trading partner. According to the Brookings Institution, President Hu Jintao of China has made up to seven trips to Africa, five as head of state, and has visited at least 17 countries. In contrast, Obama's 20-hour 2009 sojourn in Ghana has been his only trip to Sub-Saharan Africa as president.

"We would have expected to see more American involvement instead of a retreat. If you go to many countries and ask them about who is doing more, they will tell you China," said Mwangi Kimenyi, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

That's ignoring Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's trips to the area as well as both camps' campaign promises, but the point is made anecdotally and statistically: The west is less important to Sub-Saharan Africa now than it has been in a long time.

[O]verall, the picture is one of three themes: trade dominance of Nigeria, South Africa and Angola; the waning European weighting; and China’s growing importance.

Photo via Flickr (cc) user Ndecam.