How to Be a Real Superpower

China has enjoyed peace, stability and free trade. It should also help produce them

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Illustration by Oliver Munday for TIME

The Republican primary campaign has not been noteworthy for its discussion of foreign policy. But one set of statements stands out: Mitt Romney's on China. In a series of speeches, responses and op-eds, Romney has taken a fierce line, accusing Beijing of cheating "on almost every dimension" in its economic relations with the U.S. and promising to brand it a currency manipulator on his first day as President. "If you are not willing to stand up to China, you will get run over by China," he said in a debate in October. Romney's stance is significant because he is breaking with 40 years of Republican foreign policy.

Ever since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger opened the door, the Republican Party has been the party of engagement with China. Democrats have often campaigned on tougher platforms. So why is Romney--a moderate Republican who is trying his best not to make news during this primary campaign--making this sharp break? The answer can be found in the polls. One of the consequences of this Great Recession is that the American public now has an unreservedly hostile view of China as a job stealer and economic threat. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that more than half of Americans see China's growth as bad for the U.S. Romney's shift reflects the fact that even business--the core constituency for good relations with China--is changing its views. As Beijing has adopted policies to favor Chinese companies over foreign ones and refused to crack down on rampant intellectual-property theft, businessmen in the U.S. have become less starstruck and more worried.

Americans aren't the only ones concerned. In Africa, where Beijing has lavished attention, investment and aid in exchange for natural resources and energy, China has emerged as a paramount foreign policy issue. In the recent presidential campaign in Zambia, there was little discussion of the U.S., the West or neocolonialism, but one candidate, Michael Sata, argued that the Zambian government had sold out the country's economic interests to Beijing. The issue caught on, and no wonder: Zambia's chief export is copper, and Chinese state-owned companies buy a lot of it. (Such is their influence that when Sata won the election, he quickly made peace with Beijing, throwing a lunch for Chinese investors in October and promising good relations.)

Across Asia, China's every move is now watched with great attention. In 2010, as China asserted its sovereignty over disputed waters and islands in the South China Sea, it rattled neighbors from Japan to South Korea to Vietnam. This year Beijing has been more diplomatic, but tensions persist. At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit on Nov. 12-13, many leaders echoed Singapore's Prime Minister when he said the U.S. was welcome in the region and that its presence would "do good." The U.S. announced on Nov. 16 that it would for the first time establish a formal military presence in Australia--a base in all but name.

The Obama Administration is now quietly re-engaging in Asia, reversing the troop cutbacks of the Bush Administration, which was more focused on Iraq and the Middle East. Asian diplomats had often complained that U.S. participation at regional summits was too low-level. Obama's attendance at the APEC summit marks a shift in that approach.

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