The U.S. presidential election from a Chinese perspective

By Dingli Shen | September 5, 2007

While Republicans and Democrats might believe they feature differing worldviews, some international observers don’t find their thinking all that dissimilar.

Next November, the United States will elect a new president. Many candidates (Republican and
Democrat alike) are vying for the position. Given that the election is more than a year away, it’s
too early to even mildly speculate about who will win.

In the meantime, much is at stake for current President George W. Bush. Can he manage a phased
withdrawal from Iraq? Can he sustain North Korea’s willingness to disarm? Can he stabilize the
situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan? If so, there’s a good chance he’ll improve his presidential
legacy and help his party, the Republicans, compete in the general election.

Since 1980, Republicans have won five out of seven presidential elections–with Bill Clinton’s
two-term presidency the only Democratic victory. Nevertheless, Bush has weakened the Republican
hold on the presidency, and the 2008 presidential election is expected to turn left, as many
experts believe the Democrats are likely to take over the White House in January 2009.

But before asking whether a Republican or Democrat stands the best chance of winning, it’s
important to note that one-third of Americans regard themselves as conservatives while one-fifth
term themselves liberals. What’s the difference? Republicans tend to be more conservative,
defending traditional values such as family and the military; Democrats are more inclined to back
diplomacy and freedom of expression. Socially, the two parties widely disagree on abortion, gun
control, and a range of other issues.

But transcending all of this is their fundamental views of the world. Both Republicans and
Democrats push for U.S. leadership in the world. They religiously believe in a market economy and
individual rights, as well as liberty and freedom. Hence, they are both in favor of expanding the
U.S. brand of democracy worldwide–although they differ in the approach of how to do so. But no
matter whether it’s a unilateral or multilateral approach, neither Republicans nor Democrats
hesitate to wage warfare. Most recently, President Clinton used a record high number of forces
around the globe, earning the label of neo-interventionist, and Bush initiated an unlawful war in

The presidential candidates (irregardless of party affiliation) are following suit. For example,
even before the Democratic primary, Barack Obama has been threatening to attack Pakistan should
Islamabad not be more straightforward in its pursuit of Osama bin Laden. Apparently in competing
against Hillary Clinton and other presidential contenders, he wants to show his strength on defense
and national security by engaging in heavy-handed anti-terror rhetoric–something that has worked
for Bush in the past, especially during the 2004 general election.

Given that both parties want the United States to serve as the world’s leader, China must be
sophisticated in how it views the U.S. presidential election and the challenges and opportunities
each party and candidate presents. For a long time, China has been accustomed to a Republican
strategic foreign policy characterized by an international balance of power–whether it was
President Ronald Reagan or the Bush presidents. Therefore, as long as there was a pressing
arch-threat from the Soviets or Al Qaeda, the United States would consider dealing with China as a
potential challenger with a lower priority. But Beijing should take notice that President Clinton
sent military aircraft to the Taiwan straits to pressure China, and that the current president
recently cut a deal with India to cooperate with New Delhi on civilian nuclear power–apparently
with an eye toward China.

So, whether the United States turns right or left in 2008, there won’t be a fundamental shift in
Washington. Beijing needs to make sure to keep this in mind.

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