Finally, something Democrats and Republicans agree on in the 2016 election cycle: China's economic foul play.
A day after Beijing slashed the value of its currency, U.S. politicians were united in their outrage. Donald Trump, the GOP presidential hopeful, used a campaign stop in Michigan to accuse China of trying to "suck the blood out of the U.S." Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) praised his comments as "spot on."
"Countries like China that cheat and don’t play by the rules hurt good paying American jobs – like the ones we have right here in Michigan in the auto industry, and it needs to stop," Dingell said in a statement Wednesday. "I am pleased Mr. Trump made this point loudly and clearly when he visited Michigan."
The united front over China's longtime manipulation of the yuan, or renminbi, has ramped up the already high anxiety over the arrival next month of President Xi Jinping on his first state visit to the White House. Though President Obama played host to Xi at Sunnylands estate for an informal summit in California in 2013, the September visit is expected to come with the full pomp and circumstance of an arrival ceremony and formal dinner.
The table has been set with a bountiful serving of disputes: the alleged hacking of U.S government personnel records by Chinese operatives; maritime skirmishes between China and its neighbors in the South China Sea; and now renewed allegations that Beijing is manipulating its currency to gain an economic advantage on U.S. businesses.
In a recent letter to Obama, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) cited the cybertheft of 22 million records of federal employees kept by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in May and wrote that "China should be made aware that if they choose to continue down this path of destructive and malicious behavior in cyberspace, that the United States will consider these acts with the utmost seriousness and gravity.”
Obama administration officials acknowledged the tensions, but they played down the impact of the currency manipulation on the pending summit, insisting that the administration's China policy is built to withstand areas of conflict. Last November, amid similar tensions, Obama visited Xi in Beijing, and the two leaders announced a major agreement to reduce carbon emissions, as well as plans to extend business and tourist visas.
This year, however, it appears unlikely that the two sides will announce a major breakthrough that could steal the headlines. And the escalating rhetoric on Capitol Hill and the campaign trail is likely to ramp up pressure on Obama to get tougher on Xi, even as the White House unrolls the red carpet for him.
Administration officials have described the U.S.-China relationship as one of accentuating areas of cooperation and managing differences, and aides predicted the summit next month will include a wide range of topics, including areas of disagreement. But the officials have not indicated any pending shifts of policy toward Beijing, despite a recent shuffle in the Asia division at the National Security Council.
“I think we look at the China relationship in very realistic terms," said a senior administration official, who was not authorized to speak on the record. "You’ll see on display during the state visit an accurate representation of U.S.–China relations writ large. There are a number of cooperative areas where we are working together, and other areas where we have fundamental concerns about China’s behavior. We won’t pull any punches on those issues. We will have very candid discussions.”
The Chinese have their own set of grievances, including Obama's push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-nation Asia Pacific trade deal that does not include China and has been cast by the administration as a hedge against China's economic influence in the region. Meanwhile, the Obama administration's bid to persuade allies not to support the China-backed Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank backfired when Germany, Britain and other nations announced major financial contributions.
Foreign policy experts in Washington have almost uniformly called on the White House to employ a tougher policy with Beijing, but the administration has been wary. The White House blocked bipartisan efforts from the Senate to insert tough currency provisions into legislation passed in June granting the president additional powers to complete the TPP negotiations — but Obama will still need congressional approval for a final deal and some lawmakers this week cited China's move as evidence that currency language must be included.
“This action highlights the need to include a strong and effective obligation on currency manipulation in TPP," said Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.), ranking member on the House Ways and Means Committee.
China has often been cast as a dangerous rival by presidential candidates hoping to get an edge during election season, and Beijing leaders, who play on similar fears of United States hegemony, are used to inflamed rhetoric every four years. But at the White House, aides take a broader view of the relationship, recognizing that the Obama administration needs Beijing's help on global challenges ranging from Iran — where China is among the nations involved in Obama's nuclear deal with Tehran — to fighting the Islamic State to Ebola relief to international terrorism. And, of course, combating climate change, which Obama sees as one of his legacies.
“My own sense is if you take a long-term, historical view of the U.S.-China relationship, there are periods where tensions ebb and flow," the administration official said. "You could play out that narrative 7 years or 30 years.”
Still, lawmakers are airing their concerns more forcefully as Xi's visit grows closer. On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of 10 senators sent Obama a letter calling on him to raise the issue of human rights abuses with Xi next month.
“We expect that China’s recent actions in the East and South China Seas, economic and trade issues, climate change, as well as the recent cyber-attacks, will figure prominently in your discussions,” the senators wrote. “While these issues deserve a full and robust exchange of views, so too do human rights. Under President Xi, there has been an extraordinary assault on rule of law and civil society in China.”