President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney tonight will square off on foreign policy in the last of their presidential debates. One of five debate topics will be China and how to manage our complex, highly interdependent relationship with the world’s second-largest economy.
Striking a balance of firmness and cooperation with China that furthers U.S. interests, as the Obama administration has done, is a tricky but crucial endeavor. We need to know whether the former governor of Massachusetts has the right framework and necessary skills to do the same. Gov. Romney talks tough about China on the campaign trail, but we know little of his broader approach. He needs to answer several key questions in tonight’s debate.
Question: How do you envision the future of the U.S.-China relationship, and do you anticipate working cooperatively with China’s leaders on any issues?
U.S. presidents for 40 years, including President Obama, have endeavored to develop a working relationship with China to further U.S. interests. Gov. Romney’s statements instead paint China largely as a threat. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, he offered a plainly zero-sum view, suggesting the next century had to be either American or Chinese.
Even though any U.S. president has to work with China on Iran, North Korea, climate change, global financial stability and other challenges, it isn’t clear Gov. Romney believes America should have the kind of even-keeled relationship with China that a majority of Americans support. China is America’s fastest growing export market—exports were up by 50 percent during President Obama’s term—so U.S. jobs are also at stake.
Question: What do you say to experts who suggest that one of your concrete foreign policy proposals—to brand China a currency manipulator on day one of your administration—could start a trade war?
Most U.S. Secretaries of the Treasury, including all three under President George W. Bush-era, along with the current Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, have judged that dialogue with the Chinese, not labeling, is the best way to deal with its currency. Indeed, China has steadily increased the value of its currency by 11 percent since 2010.
Gov. Romney’s symbolic gesture will serve only to irritate the leaders in Beijing and make cooperation on shared challenges harder. He should jettison this idea, but his defense of it in the second debate will make that difficult.
Question: You have said in campaign speeches that you will be tough on China when it comes to unfair trade practices but you criticized the Obama administration’s action against China on tires. What criteria will you use to decide which trade actions to take against China and which not?
In No Apology, Gov. Romney wrote, “President Obama’s action to defend American tire companies from foreign competition … is decidedly bad for the nation and our workers.” This seems at odds with his recent rhetoric, but we need more specifics.
For his part, President Obama has brought more major trade actions against China than any other president. And he he has done so without derailing our bilateral relationship with China on numerous other important issues.
Question: While you were at Bain Capital, you invested in companies that outsourced jobs to China, according to the Boston Globe, but you’ve criticized President Obama for outsourcing even while your retirement investments continue to invest in Chinese companies that outsource and violate human rights. Can you explain this apparent inconsistency? Is some outsourcing inevitable?
Gov. Romney and his blind trust have engaged in a pattern of questionable investments in China that raise questions about the sincerity of his critiques of the Obama administration on outsourcing and human rights. A front page New York Times story uncovered a trust investment in Uniview, a Chinese company that sells technology to the Chinese government useful for spying on dissidents and Tibetan monks. This despite the fact that Gov. Romney’s trustee said that he will endeavor to make the investments in the blind trust conform to Gov. Romney’s positions.
While at Bain, Gov. Romney also invested in a Chinese company whose deplorable working conditions he described in detail at a fundraiser earlier this year. According to the Financial Times, his trust was also invested in the Chinese oil company Cnooc “at a time when the United States was growing concerned about the Chinese oil company’s multibillion-dollar dealings with Tehran.”
Question: The Obama administration has greatly deepened engagement with Asian allies as part of its Pacific “rebalance” strategy. You’ve said it isn’t enough, but what specifically would you do?
The Obama administration has been in overdrive strengthening America’s alliances in Asia so it’s important to know what more Gov Romney has in mind. There is a delicate balance between joining with allies to encourage constructive Chinese behavior and exacerbating Beijing’s paranoia about what it sees as U.S. containment.
President Obama sent Marines to Australia for the first time, deepened the U.S. alliance with South Korea by every measure, helped Japan after its devastating tsunami, and opened relations with Burma. He became the first American president to attend the East Asia Summit, and also the first to meet with the leaders of all 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
We need to know what Gov. Romney thinks is missing.
Is Governor Romney a businessman who wants to profit from China, a neocon who expects war with China—or another in a long line of pragmatists who will work with China but for electoral reasons thinks it’s smart to be virulently anti-China? Let’s hope we find out Monday.
Nina Hachigian is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.