Every presidential election campaign brings bouts of China-bashing. Bill Clinton accused George Bush the elder of coddling the Chinese regime. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama talked about how tough they would be. Now Mitt Romney has been sounding the same theme, frequently arguing that the Obama White House has not been forceful enough in challenging Chinese leaders on trade and currency policies.
The Republican presidential candidate often has pledged that on “day one” he would label China a currency manipulator. He insists he won’t tolerate “cheaters.” Put aside that Romney has not always advocated such a confrontational approach, in the past rightly fearing that retaliatory steps too easily could result in a harmful trade war. You can bet that Romney’s current bluster helps to explain the White House announcing on Monday a new case against China at the World Trade Organization, citing unfair subsidies of auto parts and cars.
The president made the announcement as part of his visit to Cincinnati and Columbus. The political message is plain: The White House that rescued the auto industry now is ready to do battle with the Chinese to protect and enhance further automaking in Ohio, this crucial battleground state where the auto industry, directly or indirectly, employs 12 percent of the work force.
To be sure, there is much room for pressing China to comply with the rules of global trade. The European Union recently launched an effort charging the Chinese with dumping exports of solar panels at artificially lower prices. The White House didn’t just start applying pressure. The president has pursued a handful of cases at the World Trade Organization. He has taken aim at China’s restriction of rare earths. The new interagency Trade Enforcement Unit initiated the action on cars and auto parts.
What deserves attention is that once in the Oval Office, presidents quickly discover the many layers and subtleties at work in relations with China. The slogans and chest-thumping no longer apply.
A policy toward China must be measured against an array of factors, alert to how important the relationship is, from economics and defense to diplomacy, human rights and the environment. Recall the president’s first visit to Beijing and Shanghai. He received criticism for listening too politely, seemingly intimidated and without a clear plan.
Yet, the president deserves credit for working the complexities the past three years, managing the tensions and areas of cooperation. Washington has asserted its presence in the Pacific, whether in building stronger relations with China’s neighbors or deploying Marines on the northern coast of Australia. The president has applauded the emergence of a stronger and more engaged China while taking steps to counter its power and influence.
The relationship trends toward respectful and competitive, a trade dispute among the many elements, the interests shared and at odds.