* Romney levels criticism during Xi Jinping's visit
* Tough talks on China a centerpiece of Romney campaign
By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON, Feb 16 (Reuters) - Mitt Romney lashed out at what he called President Barack Obama's weak policy on China, criticizing it on Thursday for going in "precisely the wrong direction" and calling meetings this week with China's vice president "empty pomp and ceremony."
In an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, the Republican presidential candidate chided Obama for taking too long to address the Asian powerhouse and said he would change course if elected by preserving a military presence in the region and confronting human rights issues.
"President Obama came into office as a near supplicant to Beijing, almost begging it to continue buying American debt so as to finance his profligate spending here at home ... Such weakness has only encouraged Chinese assertiveness and made our allies question our staying power in East Asia," the former Massachusetts governor wrote.
"Now, three years into his term, the president has belatedly responded with a much-ballyhooed 'pivot' to Asia, a phrase that may prove to be as gimmicky and vacuous as his 'reset' with Russia," he said, adding that "the supposed pivot has been oversold" and was "also vastly under-resourced."
"We must change course," said Romney, who is vying for the Republican nomination to face Democrat Obama in the Nov. 6 election.
Romney's comments come as China's Vice President Xi Jinping visits the United States this week to urge greater cooperation between Beijing and Washington. During the trip Obama and other administration officials pressed China to improve its human rights record and play by the rules of the world economy.
Such a stance aims to appeal to U.S. voters in an election year during which voters in battleground states have suffered job losses as their work moved to other countries, including China.
On Wednesday, one day after meeting with Xi at the White House, Obama continued his attack on Chinese trade practices and called for manufacturing jobs to move back to the United States.
Obama chided competitors for not playing "by the same rules" at a campaign-style visit at Master Lock's Milwaukee, Wisconsin, factory and pointed to his creation of a Trade Enforcement Unit to investigate unfair trade practices in China and other countries.
But Romney said in the newspaper piece he would take a different tack, calling for direct action to counter "abusive Chinese practices in the areas of trade, intellectual property, and currency valuation."
Romney, who is running in large part on his experience as a business executive, has made tough talk on China a centerpiece of his campaign's economic message and last week criticised China's "authoritarianism" during an address to an audience of technology executives.
"Unless China changes its ways, on day one of my presidency I will designate it a currency manipulator and take appropriate counteraction. A trade war with China is the last thing I want, but I cannot tolerate our current trade surrender," he wrote on Thursday.
He also called for reversing defense cuts and maintaining a strong military presence in the Pacific to balance "the long-term challenge posed by China's build-up."
"This is not an invitation to conflict. Instead, this policy is a guarantee that the region remains open for cooperative trade, and that economic opportunity and democratic freedom continue to flourish across East Asia," he wrote.
On the issue of human rights, Romney wrote: "We must also forthrightly confront the fact that the Chinese government continues to deny its people basic political freedoms and human rights."