China experts across the political spectrum are not keen on Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker’s demand that President Obama cancel Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the White House. They’re calling the proposal, echoed on Wednesday by rival GOP contender Carly Fiorina, both “childish” and “harmful” to U.S. credibility.
Derek Scissors, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), says that while Walker’s desire to take a tougher stance toward China is well-founded, calling for the cancellation of a state visit simply isn’t the right approach. “On principle, I understand where Governor Walker is coming from,” Scissors says, “but this just isn’t how you address it.” Rescinding the invitation now, he says, would make it look “like we’re throwing a tantrum rather than taking a substantive approach to our problems with China,” and that “it would be seen as childish US provocation” and ”harm our credibility.”
Walker issued the demand on Monday as Donald Trump, the surprise GOP front-runner, continued to take a tough public stance on China. Trump has long said he would send the Chinese to McDonalds rather than entertain them at the White House. “I’d get him a McDonalds hamburger and I’d say ‘we gotta get down to work, because you can’t continue to devalue the Chinese currency,’” Trump told Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly on Monday.
The Wisconsin governor cited China’s hand in the anxiety plaguing the U.S. stock market as a reason to cancel the visit. “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,” he said in a statement. “Rather than honoring Chinese President Xi Jinping with an official state visit next month, President Obama should focus on holding China accountable over its increasing attempts to undermine U.S. interests.”
But market volatility is precisely why acting on Walker’s call would prove detrimental, says David Lampton, director of China studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
“Hanging up the phone would be very destabilizing in this current economic environment,” Lampton says. “Right now the health of our economy depends on the reassurance that the world can manage this kind of uncertainty, reassurance that adults are running this.”
“It’s a good campaign statement for generating support,” he says, “but it’s not something that a responsible executive would do.”
Walker maintains that canceling the state visit and having a productive and open dialogue with China are not mutually exclusive enterprises. “Governor Walker understands the critical difference between lavishing praise through the pageantry of a state visit and necessary engagement through tough conversations,” says Walker spokeswoman AshLee Strong. “As the governor said, ‘There’s serious work to be done rather than pomp and circumstance.’”
So what should the U.S. do to respond to China’s aggression? “We need a steady policy of firmness, not symbolically satisfying one-off responses,” says Michael Auslin, a resident scholar at AEI and an Asia expert. He says the goal of American policy must be to convince China it can’t change the status quo and that the U.S. will not ignore its aggressions. In the South China Sea, Auslin says the U.S. “should already be sailing through the areas where China is building artificial islands, along with allies.”
Rather than rescinding an invitation, Auslin favors “reducing the amount of our military contacts and invitations.”
The U.S. and China also have a number of shared interests, something Walker alluded to when he said the two countries are rivals rather than enemies. A productive response to China is one mindful of those “important” interests, says Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow for defense and foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute. If the U.S. wants China to remain cooperative on helping reverse North Korea’s nuclear program and willing to dissolve tensions in the South China Sea, he says, “it is crucial to keep the highest lines of communication open at all times.”
‘It’s a good campaign statement for generating support, but it’s not something that a responsible executive would do.’
“On Walker’s part, tactically and strategically, this would be a very bad move,” he says.
Walker’s foreign-policy team, however, says the cancellation would send a much-needed message.
“It’s a moderate step to show our displeasure with Chinese conduct,” says Walker foreign-policy adviser Robert O’Brien. “The problem with so many China experts is that they’ll wring their hands and say there’s really nothing we can do, that we have to accommodate China.” That’s a position also supported by Dan Blumenthal, the director of Asian studies at AEI and an adviser to the Walker campaign, who says, “There are plenty of times to engage, and many venues where we can work with Chinese leaders, but a state visit with all its honors, at a time when China is acting more aggressively and more repressively, sends the wrong signal.”
Michael Mazza, another Asia expert at AEI, also voiced his support for the move, as did Arkansas senator Tom Cotton. Mazza penned an op-ed on the subject for The National Interest yesterday.
“Cancellation of the visit would be in accord with American interest and American values,” he wrote. “When you catch a burglar in the act, you don’t serve him a hot meal and then send him on his way, loot in tow.”
#related#Foreign policy has at times bedeviled Walker. During a February appearance in London, Walker dodged questions on ISIS and turmoil in Ukraine, wasting what many felt was a key opportunity to showcase a fluency on the issues. His assertion in February that defeating labor unions in Wisconsin had equipped him to take on ISIS also raised eyebrows.
But the Walker campaign has since assembled a robust foreign-policy team including former Missouri senator Jim Talent and Middle East expert and Hudson Institute senior fellow Michael Doran.
The governor is set to deliver more comprehensive remarks in his first foreign-policy speech of the campaign season at the Citadel in South Carolina on Friday.
— Elaina Plott is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.
EDITOR’s NOTE: This piece has been modified since its original posting.