* Romney levels criticism during Xi Jinping's visit
* Tough talk on China a centerpiece of Romney campaign
* Obama campaign says Romney flip-flopping on the issue
By Jeff Mason and Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON, Feb 16 Republican presidential
hopeful Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama's campaign
sparred on Thursday over whether the White House is too weak on
China, a hot topic that is gaining prominence ahead of
November's U.S. election.
In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, Romney accused Obama
of "almost begging" Beijing to buy U.S. debt. His comments were
timed to coincide with the visit of China's leader-in-waiting,
Xi Jinping, who held talks with Obama at the White House this
Obama's re-election team in Chicago shot back swiftly at
Romney, accusing him of changing positions on China for
U.S. voters are concerned about the loss of manufacturing
jobs in states such as Ohio, an electoral battleground in the
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who faces a
growing threat from former Senator Rick Santorum in the race for
the Republican nomination to challenge Obama in November, called
Xi's meetings with U.S. leaders "empty pomp and ceremony."
"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," Romney
wrote in the opinion piece.
Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic
and International Studies, said Romney's attack during a foreign
leader's visit was unusual but not unexpected.
"I just can't recall there being such a targeted attack on a
president's China policy during a leader's visit," she said.
"It probably doesn't surprise (China's leaders), although
they're not happy to see it."
Zeroing in on one topic that galls American voters about
China, Romney said Obama was not forceful in pressing Beijing
over human rights.
"His administration demurred from raising issues of human
rights for fear it would compromise agreement on the global
economic crisis or even 'the global climate-change crisis.' Such
weakness has only encouraged Chinese assertiveness and made our
allies question our staying power in East Asia," Romney wrote.
Obama met with Xi, China's current vice president, in the
White House Oval Office on Tuesday, raising China's human rights
record and encouraging Beijing to play by global economic rules.
Beating up on China is an easy way for candidates to score
political points, and Obama's campaign, which was expecting
Romney's attack, called him a flip-flopper - a charge both
Democrats and Romney's Republican rivals have sought to exploit
in the former governor's policy resume.
"Today's tough talk on China stands in stark opposition to
his position two years ago, when Romney called the president's
decision to enforce trade laws against China 'bad for the nation
and our workers,'" said Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt,
quoting from Romney's book, "No Apology."
LaBolt also cited a Wall Street Journal report that said
Romney's financial advisers sold some $1.5 million in
investments in China last year.
"He was comfortable investing 1.5 million of his own money
in China rather than America until he decided it was bad for his
politics. A Commander-in-Chief only gets one chance to get it
right," LaBolt said.
TOUGH TALK ON BOTH SIDES
Romney says if he were president he would push China to
change its trade practices by designating it a currency
manipulator - something the Obama administration has declined to
do. He repeated that promise at a campaign event in an affluent
suburb outside Detroit on Thursday.
"If I'm president of the United States, I will finally take
China to the carpet and say, 'Look you guys, I'm gonna label you
a currency manipulator and apply tariffs unless you stop those
practices,'" he said.
Obama is also frustrated with Chinese economic practices.
He continued his own tough talk on Wednesday, chiding
foreign competitors such as China for not playing "by the same
rules" at a campaign-style visit at Master Lock's Milwaukee
factory and highlighting his creation of a Trade Enforcement
Unit to investigate unfair trade practices in China and other
Obama has sharpened his rhetoric against China in recent
months, a move analysts says is positioned partly as a buffer to
Daniel Twining, a former adviser to Republican Senator John
McCain and Asia expert at the German Marshall Fund, said
Romney's views were not out of line with the U.S. electorate.
"There's a lot of sympathy out in the country for ... this
criticism of China that it doesn't play by the rules," he said.
"Governor Romney is not out of step with this."
A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found 52 percent of
Americans had an unfavorable impression of China, while 37
percent viewed it favorably.
Romney 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