GET OUT THE VOTE: People vote during the U.S. midterm elections at a polling station in Maryland on November 2 (ZHANG JUN)
On November 2, the American public sent a clear message to Washington and President Barack Obama was forced to recognize the country's dissatisfaction after an election he described as "humbling." It was an unusual election in some ways, due partly to new rules that allowed a flood of money from opaque sources to support campaigns and spawn a handful of outrageous messages.
Unlike the 2008 election cycle, China was often mentioned in advertisements and speeches, invariably in adversarial terms. However, it is clear that despite rhetoric depicting China as a competitor, the 2010 elections were not about China and they don't mark a shift in U.S. foreign policy. In domestic debates, China became a metaphor for public angst about the state of the economy and effects of globalization. While the 112th Congress will bring new foreign policy voices to the fore, America watchers in China should not expect dramatic changes in U.S. policy towards China.
For the White House, the election results are clearly a rebuke that those in power need to absorb and address if they expect to have a second term. The likelihood is reduced that President Obama will be able to pursue more sweeping reform efforts like "Obamacare," which became a lightning rod in the midterm elections. The Republican takeover in the House and the reduction of the Democratic majority in the Senate will limit the president's ability to advance comprehensive legislation without Republican support. This does not bode well for President Obama's unfulfilled legislative goals: energy, climate change and immigration reform.
The Republican victory does not mean the Republican agenda is necessarily ascendant either. Republicans are keenly aware that the public's repudiation of many Democratic candidates was not an endorsement of their values, but a rejection of the "Washington" mindset and the business-as-usual approach they expected President Obama to eschew.
The rise of the "Tea Party"—not a political party in the traditional sense—does not provide much insight about how incoming politicians will treat foreign policy issues. The Tea Party is a decentralized grassroots movement with little coherency and no platform, and it therefore has ambiguous stances on many issues. For example, while Republicans have traditionally supported free trade, candidates backed by the Tea Party have split both for and against it, reminding us that public sentiment in the United States leans toward protecting and creating American jobs, whether through free trade or protectionism. Black cat or white cat, if it creates jobs, it is a good cat.
While Congress is not responsible for making foreign policy, the change of power in the House will certainly affect U.S. policies toward the rest of the world. Concerns about America's deficit spending will exert budget pressures on foreign, as well as domestic, accounts. Republican perspectives will have to be taken into account as the administration considers its involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq and its major initiatives such as strategic arms reduction and U.S. foreign assistance.
It is unlikely the new political balance in Washington will substantively alter U.S. policy towards China or Asia. The administration's strategy of actively engaging friends and allies in the region will undoubtedly continue. The United States and China will continue to share a common interest in peace, security and prosperity. The entrenched differences and mistrust that trigger tense moments between the two powers will also remain.
What will change are new voices setting agendas on Capitol Hill and more visible contradicting statements from the Republican-controlled House and Democrat-controlled administration. Chinese managers of the bilateral relationship would be well served to deepen their relations with these new leaders on the Hill. Chinese analysts must discern the different voices of the American political establishment and learn to craft deft responses that appreciate different opinions without dismissing some and cherry-picking others that are to China's liking.
Perhaps most importantly, Chinese leaders should not interpret a divided Washington as weak or sense an opportunity to seek advantage by picking sides on domestic political issues. Instead, China should recognize the strength that the American people draw from their democratic process and the balance of power in their government, and seek to better the U.S.-China relationship by grasping the opportunity to engage political actors representing diverse constituencies that together comprise American interests.
The author is the director of China studies and a Starr Senior Fellow at The Nixon Center in Washington, D.C.
(Viewpoints in this article do not necessarily represent those of Beijing Review)