Within the Republican presidential field, no one has talked tougher about China than Mitt Romney. He has vowed to go after that country from his first day in office, threatening to slap tariffs on Chinese imports to make up for its artificially low currency.
"We can't just sit back and let China run all over us," Romney said. "People say, 'Well, you'll start a trade war.' There's one going on right now, folks. They're stealing our jobs. And we're going to stand up to China."
In the Republicans' last foreign policy debate 10 days ago, the former Massachusetts governor argued that the U.S. still has plenty of leverage over China that it could use to demand more favorable trading terms.
"We have right now something they need very badly, which is access to our market," he said. "And our friends around the world have that same power over China."
For longtime observers of U.S.-China relations, Romney's campaign rhetoric has a familiar ring.
Back in the spring of 2008, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama said China's economy is dependent on its exports to the U.S.
"What we need to do is to just be better bargainers and say, 'Look, here's the bottom line: You guys keep on manipulating your currency; we are going to start shutting off access to some of our markets,' " Obama the candidate said.
But President Obama never made good on that threat. And Scott Paul, who keeps a wary eye on China as head of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, is skeptical that a President Romney would be any different.
"We've seen presidential candidates in the past talk about China in a very aggressive way, only to back off once they become president," he says. "So I think that there is still a gap between rhetoric and performance."
While U.S. officials continue to complain about China's undervalued currency — and the disadvantage it creates for American manufacturers — the Obama administration has stopped short of branding China a "currency manipulator," or cutting off its access to U.S. markets.
Instead, the administration has pursued more targeted actions. In 2009, for example, it attached a 35 percent tariff to Chinese tires. Paul says that provided much-needed breathing room for domestic tire makers faced with a flood of imports.
"The tire case meant jobs for American workers," he says. "Since the tire decision, we have seen several companies hire back workers, invest in new factories. We've seen these tire makers gain market share."
But Romney opposed the administration's tariff measure. In his 2010 book, No Apology, Romney called it "protectionism."
"President Obama's action to defend American tire companies from foreign competition may make good politics by repaying unions for their support of his campaign," Romney wrote, "but it is decidedly bad for the nation and our workers. Protectionism stifles productivity."
Romney appears to draw a distinction in his book between actions to protect a specific industry, such as tires, and those that target economywide threats — like an undervalued currency.
Some observers say the currency issue is overblown. Nick Lardy of the Peterson Institute for International Economics says China's currency has been rising, albeit slowly, so the artificial advantage that Chinese exporters get is now the smallest it's been in several years.
"The government would never admit that it was responding to pressure," says Lardy. "There is certainly a very, very strong case to be made that it is in China's own interest to allow their currency to appreciate."
Lardy says he'd like to see the government pursue more trade complaints against China. But he recognizes trade is just one element of a complex relationship. China is the world's second-biggest economy, with growing strategic influence. So Lardy says this year's confrontational campaign rhetoric may give way, just as it has in the past.
"Everybody recognizes that in campaigns, candidates say things that they think might gain votes," he says. "When they get into office and see the complexity and the challenges that they face, they find that they're a bit more constrained."
Officials in China know that too. So like American voters, they're listening to what the presidential candidates have to say, and taking their words with a grain of salt.
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