Is China an economic competitor to be treated like a big boy in the international system, or is it still a developing country that must focus domestically on the employment needs of a population of more than 1 billion people?
China pleads the latter – but both Obama and Romney go with the former and see a “get tough” policy toward China as a way to impel it to become a more responsible player in the international economic system.
The Obama administration has stepped up the slapping of punitive trade measures on China this year, from tariffs on Chinese solar cells to sharply higher duties on wind-power generation towers. Obama boasted in May that he was lodging trade complaints against China “at twice the rate” of the Bush administration.
The administration has also addressed the increasingly prominent issues of corporate espionage, hacking, and intellectual property theft – of everything from American software to Hollywood movies – in its broad-based “strategic dialogue” with Chinese officials.
In response, Romney says “dialogue" – which he derides as a weak hallmark of Obama diplomacy – has not worked with China on economic issues any better than it has with Iran on its nuclear program or with Russia on strategic issues.
As recently as 2010, Romney criticized Obama’s trade measures against China as protectionist, but in last year’s Republican primaries, he took the opposite tack. In fact, he took such an aggressive tone with China that fellow Republican candidate John Huntsman (Obama’s former ambassador to China) accused him of China-bashing and said his approach would risk setting off a damaging trade war with the US’s second-largest trading partner.
But Romney has not backed off, and aides highlight his plan for “robust” confrontation with China over trade as a key component of their candidate’s economic program and a major difference with Obama.
Romney would also pursue a trade pact with the countries of the Pacific region – something the Obama administration is already doing – where China has significant economic ties. Romney aides say China would not be invited to join such a pact, but that membership at some point down the road would be held out as an incentive for China to begin acting as a more responsible player in the international economic system.