U.S. candidates pass over tough China questions in final debate

WASHINGTON Tue Oct 23, 2012 10:24am EDT

1 of 2. U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney shake hands at the conclusion of the final presidential debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida October 22, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney vowed on Monday to get tough on China's trade policies, but they mostly used the Asian giant as a foil to air competing domestic economic programs in their final debate before the November 6 election.

In a showdown that was supposed to be limited to foreign policy, both men focused on the economic aspects of the complex U.S.-China relationship, touching only briefly on the security challenge that fast-rising China poses to a U.S.-led alliance system in Asia.

Human rights, China's support for states that are foes of the United States and intensifying maritime territorial disputes that pit China against U.S. allies Japan and the Philippines went unmentioned in the 90-minute debate in Boca Raton, Florida.

Also unmentioned was the impending leadership change in the world's second largest economy, as well as China's economic slowdown, which could have profound consequences for U.S. exporters.

China is "both an adversary, but also a potential partner in the international community if it's following the rules," said Obama, who touted his administration's efforts to hold China accountable for breaching global trade rules.

The loss of American jobs due to the absence of a level playing field in trade is "why we have brought more cases against China for violating trade rules than ... the previous administration had done in two terms," said Obama.

"And we've won just about every case that we've filed, that has been decided," he said. The Obama administration has prevailed in about eight World Trade Organization cases against China, industry sources calculate.

Romney, whose campaign rhetoric toward China has often been harsh, agreed that "we can be a partner with China. We don't have to be an adversary in any way, shape or form."

But he and the president soon turned the China question back to domestic affairs.

Romney cited a U.S. valve-maker whose products he said were being counterfeited in China, right down to the serial numbers and packaging.

"We have an enormous trade imbalance with China, and it's worse this year than last year, and it's worse last year than the year before. And so we have to understand that we can't just surrender and lose jobs year in and year out," he said.

Obama said investment in education and research was the true way to stay ahead of China.

"Over the long term, in order for us to compete with China, we've also got to make sure, though, that we're ... taking care of business here at home," he said.

Obama repeated criticism that Romney had invested in firms that sent jobs to China and added that Romney's budget would not address U.S. needs in education and research. Romney said government deficits and military cuts under Obama made the United States appear weak in Chinese eyes.

'CURRENCY MANIPULATOR' DECLARATION ON DAY ONE

Romney repeated a pledge he first made early this year to press China to stop suppressing the value of its currency to make Chinese exports cheaper than those of U.S. competitors.

On revaluing its currency, China is "making some progress; they need to make more," said the former Massachusetts governor.

"That's why on day one, I will label them a currency manipulator, which allows us to apply tariffs where they're taking jobs," said Romney.

The U.S. Treasury Department named China a currency manipulator five times from 1992 to 1994, but it has been 17 years since any country has been so designated.

A finding of manipulation requires the Treasury to start negotiations on exchange rates, both bilaterally and through the International Monetary Fund.

John Frisbie, president of the U.S.-China Business Council, a group of businesses that trade with China, said that engagement with China had led to the strengthening of China's yuan, or renminbi, by more than 30 percent since 2005.

"Evidence has shown that the best way to make progress is through comprehensive engagement and legal actions - not political rhetoric," he said in a statement.

Romney shrugged off concerns his approach would trigger a trade war, saying there was already a trade war going on that had led to a U.S. trade deficit

"It's a silent one. And they're winning," said Romney.

Scott Paul, executive director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, an advocacy group that champions pressing Beijing over currency and other trade barriers, said Monday's debate "didn't really break new ground on China."

But he said the focus on the trade deficit with China and its impact on manufacturing was long overdue.

"The real winner was American manufacturing. It's clear that both candidates believe it is critically important that China play by the rules," Paul said.

(Editing by Warren Strobel and Peter Cooney)

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
Comments (4)
Caspary wrote:
So Romney is not content on outsourcing American jobs to China. He now invests in Chinese companies some of which invest in Iran!! Disgraceful and un-American. I know where my vote will go.

Oct 23, 2012 7:43am EDT  --  Report as abuse
Pete_Murphy wrote:
There are several points that need to be made here:
1. Romney is exactly right when he says that we’re already in a trade war with China, and that China is winning.
2. Currency exchange rates have absolutely nothing to do with the balance of trade. An exhaustive study of exchange rates vs. balance of trade has found no relationship. The strengthening of another nation’s currency is no more likely to reduce our trade deficit than it is to worsen it. Two cases in point: (1) Since China’s yuan (renminbi) began strengthening several years ago (it’s now 30% stronger than in 2005), our trade deficit with China has dramatically worsened instead of improving. (2) Over the past three decades, the Japanese yen has appreciated by over 300%. Yet, instead of improving, our trade deficit with Japan exploded.
3. The article mentions the concept of a “level playing field.” It’s impossible for there to be a “level playing field” in trade between two nations grossly disparate in population density, as in the case of trade between the U.S. and China, Japan, Germany, S. Korea and a host of other badly overpopulated nations. The inverse relationship between per capita consumption and population density assures that the less densely populated nation (the U.S.) will be saddled with a large trade deficit while manufacturing jobs are shifted to the more densely populated one. The ONLY way to “level the playing field” in such a situation is through the use of tariffs.
4. We badly need an amendment to the constitution that would mandate a balance of trade and would forbid U.S. membership in any international organization that does not recognize the right of all nations to manage trade in their own best self-interests.

Pete Murphy
Author, “Five Short Blasts”

Oct 23, 2012 8:17am EDT  --  Report as abuse
ncshu2 wrote:
The capitalism system for profit, and globalizaiotn of world economies determines that the labour-intensifying manufacturing jobs in US will be shifted to the regions where the labour costs less. That certainly will result in job loss in the manufacturing sector of US. China is at the focus for its manufacturing capacity due to the size of its population. Sure, as a country of totalitarianism, the unfair trade practice by the Chinese government exacerbates the problem. But a level playing field would not fundamentally save labour-intensifying, manufacturing jobs in US due to the huge income disparity between ordinary American and Chinese. However, the political changes in China to make the society more equal, so more people could benefit from the economic development, may mollify the situation. If the children of the workers at assembly line in Shenzhen to produce iphone for Apple were at least ipod user, the trade imbalance would be less hard to swallow, as ordinary Chinese buy more from US. The current autocratic political system in China is a hinderance to that process.

One benefit of the globalization of the capitalism economies is that it has the effect to level off the living standard in different regions of the world. It has been proved by the development histories of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. In China the situation is different because its autocratic political system impedes the prosperity of its majority, thus prolongs the whole painful process for the both sides of the trade.

Oct 23, 2012 11:16am EDT  --  Report as abuse
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.

BOSTON, ONE YEAR LATER