On top of shouting matches on every topic from economic policy to the appropriate way to store canines in moving vehicles, President Obama and Mitt Romney are still squabbling over one issue: Chinese policy.

Both candidates have argued that the United States should adopt an aggressive attitude in dealing with China. This attitude comes at the expense of diplomacy that appreciates topical complexity and strives to build durable long-term relationships.

Mitt Romney has vowed to issue an executive order on “day one” to file a sanction at the World Trade Organization over Chinese currency manipulation. This manipulation, which pegs the Chinese currency in relation to the U.S. dollar at a rate below market value, artificially depresses the price of Chinese goods on foreign markets and contributes to the trade deficit. In this argument, Romney finds an unusual intellectual ally in Paul Krugman, whose similar suggestion triggered opposition and denunciation from economists worldwide two years ago. Krugman was opposed then and Romney is opposed now for the obvious reason that starting a trade war during periods of low growth can trigger recession.

Obama recently emphasized a “pivot” in U.S. military deployment from the Middle East toward the Asia-Pacific region. At the same time, the State Department has announced that the U.S.-Japanese security treaty would apply to the disputed Senkaku Islands. The president has also adopted a similarly aggressive stance on trade policy, recently launching a WTO enforcement action against the Chinese automobile industry. He used an executive order to block a Chinese company from constructing windmills near a military test sight in Oregon, the first time a president has directly interfered in foreign private business in 22 years.

Both candidates seem to be playing off of America’s historical tendency to assign blame to an impenetrably different foreign power — recall the Red Scare. Specifically, Obama’s actions suggest a military and economic protectionism that runs contrary to his message of engaging foreign nations as equals. Apparently, the votes of those keenly interested in preserving archaic protectionism trump the central vision of Obama’s message.

Mitt Romney, on the other hand, comes from a faith whose text of scripture, “The Book of Mormon,” describes an international sphere consisting of only two ideologically incompatible states engaged in perpetual warfare. In that conflict, the advocates of freedom, religiosity, culture and family values face off against godless, violent and expansionist foes. Perhaps this influences his apparent tendency to see the world through bipolar lenses. First it was the United States versus Russia; now Romney has selected a more palatable, godless expansionist movement for this new good-versus-evil dichotomy.

In reality, the question of China and its role in East Asia is complicated and cannot be recklessly simplified. China’s National People’s Congress is set to begin a process in November that will reorganize how new leadership is chosen for China’s most important committee.

During this leadership transition, the scandal surrounding party leader Bo Xilai’s indictment for corruption, escalating tensions with Japan over the Senkaku Islands and state-supported rioting in major Chinese cities will resonate in the background.

Meanwhile, the tech revolution in China will continue to reshape the way that government and citizens interact. The meteoric growth of the government is slowing, leading to questions regarding whether the Chinese government can sustain civil order among an oppressed and increasingly unemployed populace. Recent polling suggests that Chinese people are no happier than they were before the economic growth of the ’90s.

During such a notable period of transition in China, the candidates perform an injustice as they refuse to intelligently discuss an effective China policy grounded in moderation and relationship-building diplomacy.

Perhaps both candidates, already well versed in unrealistic simplification, fear-mongering and lying during the campaign season, actually have no intention to follow through on any of their threats. But as the Chinese state-run newspaper Huanqiu recently contended, China has little incentive and no moral imperative to sit idly by as the presidential candidates insult their national honor.

Unlike both the Obama and Romney campaigns, China will not simply disappear after November. While this campaign season will soon become a historical footnote, the damage it has on a constructive relationship with the greatest power of tomorrow will not soon disappear.

TOM CHRISTIANSEN is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service.

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