US President Barack Obama and presidential rival Mitt Romney sparred over China during a debate on foreign policy on Monday night, but as usual the focus was less the Asian giant’s rise as a world power than its the impact on the US economy.
Both candidates said they want the US to have a positive relationship with China, but Beijing must play by international trade rules.
China played a relatively minor part in the debate — the last topic raised by moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News in the 90-minute encounter — that was dominated by the security situation in the Middle East.
Romney repeated his threat to designate China a currency manipulator on his first day in office for allegedly undervaluing the yuan to help its exporters, which he said would allow the US to apply punitive tariffs. He also accused the Chinese of stealing US intellectual property and computer hacking.
“I want a great relationship with China,” Romney said. “China can be our partner, but that does not mean they can just roll all over us and take our jobs on an unfair basis.”
Obama described China as both an adversary and a potential international partner. He defended his record in addressing China’s trade violations, saying his administration had brought more cases than his predecessor, former US president George W. Bush, did in two terms.
The US is running a record trade deficit with China — it reached US$295.5 billion last year — and Romney pointed out it has widened year by year.
Obama said that in order to build businesses to compete with China in the long-term, the US needed to “take care of business at home” by supporting education and research.
Romney, who said the US could not just “surrender” in the face of trade violations, rolled his eyes at Obama’s mention of education as a way of making the US more competitive against China.
The tone of the debate — the last of three held between the candidates before the vote — underscores how the tightly contested the Nov. 6 election is being fought, primarily over the state of the US economy, with unemployment running at just less than 8 percent.
Neither candidate grappled with the deeper challenges of China’s rise — that it has managed to build a competitive economy, while maintaining an authoritarian political system. There was also little substantive discussion of the challenge posed to US military pre-eminence in the Asia-Pacific region by China’s rapid military buildup.
Romney said that China needs to create 20 million jobs every year and that it wants a stable world in which it can trade its goods, but he said China would not respect a US that has a heavily indebted economy and is cutting back its military.
Obama contended that the US is stronger in the world today than when he took office. He said that his administration’s strategic “pivot” toward the Asia-Pacific region as the US winds down its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was because it would be a region of massive economic growth in the future.
“We believe China can be a partner, but we are also sending a very clear message that America is a Pacific power and we are going to have a presence there,” he said.