US President Barack Obama on Thursday played the anti-China card beloved of US presidential candidates, covering his flank against the more direct Beijing bashing of presumptive Republican party nominee and former Massachussetts governor Mitt Romney.
Obama announced in Ohio, a swing state and an engine of the US auto industry, that his government had filed a WTO complaint against tariffs on US$3 billion of US auto parts entering China.
Officials denied he was playing politics — but criticizing the Asian giant is an easy applause line as voters chafe at the flight of US jobs abroad.
However, Obama’s move was fairly tame, especially compared with the rhetoric of Romney, who calls the president a “supplicant” to Beijing.
Obama has previously complained over China’s subsidies for its auto parts sector, slapped tariffs on Chinese tire imports and lodged a case against Beijing’s export restrictions on rare earth elements used in high-tech products.
Hammering Obama on China makes sense for Romney, as he fans resentment over the president’s management of the US economy, with which Beijing is inextricably linked.
Romney is also seeking a window to skewer Obama on an area of perceived strength: foreign policy.
While Romney can vent at Beijing, Obama is constrained by his responsibility to steer perhaps the most important and complex diplomatic relationship in the world.
However, the fanfare about his WTO move — including a front page leak to an Ohio newspaper — shows concern that China can make for dicey domestic politics.
China is also a campaign device for Obama, highlighting Romney’s time as a venture capitalist, when he reportedly helped firms “pioneer” the transfer of US jobs overseas.
“You’ve got to give Mitt Romney credit,” US Vice President Joe Biden said recently in Iowa. “He’s a job creator — in Singapore, China, India.”
Romney has joined the long tradition of candidates, including former US president Bill Clinton, who lambasted the “Butchers of Beijing,” who seek to exploit an incumbent president on China.
He has vowed to prevent a “Chinese century” pledged to brand Beijing a currency manipulator on Day One of his presidency and to throw obstacles in the way of China’s rise to “regional hegemony.”
“Candidate Obama may talk a tough game on standing up to China and fighting for American manufacturing — but President Obama just hasn’t delivered,” Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said on Thursday.
However, just as there is a -tradition of lashing Beijing on the stump, there is precedent for presidents to tone it down once elected.
Top Chinese leaders, increasingly wise to the ways of US politics, are understood to have told Obama that they expect a measure of anti-Beijing rhetoric in the US election.
However, Beijing seems interested in a return of managed stability after November — evident in the negotiated exit from a crisis over blind dissident Chen Guangcheng (陳光誠), who took refuge in the US embassy in Beijing.
History would suggest things will smooth over next year.
Romney’s rhetoric though may have made an eventual walk back more difficult.
“He is putting himself into a box,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history at Princeton University, suggesting that Romney is playing a “dangerous game.”