The final 2012 U.S. Presidential Debate went off without a hitch last night as both candidates stuck closely to their foreign policy talking points. China was meant to feature prominently with time devoted explicitly to the bilateral relationship. After brief opening remarks both Obama and Romney veered off topic and returned to the jobs question, a perennial favorite whenever China comes up.
What we know of the candidates’ positions from last night’s sometimes testy exchange paint a picture of a complicated U.S. relationship with the world’s second largest economy. These include concerns over the loss of domestic manufacturing, rule of law and growing military strength balanced against commercial opportunities half a world away (see full transcript starting with the China question here.)
Romney came out swinging with the now somewhat antiquated claim that China is a currency manipulator. In his own words:
“We’ll also make sure that we have trade relations with China that work for us. I’ve watched year in and year out as companies have shut down and people have lost their jobs because China has not played by the same rules, in part by holding down artificially the value of their currency. It holds down the prices of their goods. It means our goods aren’t as competitive and we lose jobs. That’s got to end.
They’re making some progress; they need to make more. That’s why on day one, i will label them a currency manipulator, which allows us to apply tariffs where they’re taking jobs. They’re stealing our intellectual property, our patents, our designs, our technology, hacking into our computers, counterfeiting our goods.
They have to understand we want to trade with them. We want a world that’s stable. We like free enterprise, but you got to play by the rules.”
Technical issues aside (as the Treasury Department has ruled against that legally very specific manipulator charge in the past), inexpensive Chinese manufactured goods are the result of low cost labor, economies of scale and exchange rates.
No matter what happens the jobs lost to China (and many other countries including Mexico, Turkey, India, and Bangladesh), including low-end garment production, household goods, and assembly work won’t be returning. If Chinese products became more expensive production would shift to other low-wage countries. Check the labels the next time you go shopping and you might be surprised where clothing is manufactured these days.
Even if Romney as President labeled China a currency manipulator, the remedy includes tariffs against Chinese goods. As the moderator Bob Scheiffer accurately pointed out, that would risk a trade war with China. Romney replied that China exports more to the U.S. than the other way around so they have more to lose. This simplistic version of trade does not reflect the realities of international commerce.
Sudden tariff increases would be a particularly reckless course of action which does absolutely nothing to solve the core problems facing U.S. labor, namely better paying U.S. jobs. The effects of punitive action would wreak havoc with trade on both sides of the Pacific and the intricately linked global supply chain.
China’s currency has also been appreciating over the past several years and labor costs are rising as well. Romney’s missive, along with the ear-catching phrase that they “must play by rules” which Obama also reiterated, did little to address real trade frictions like further opening of Chinese markets to U.S. goods, greater Chinese enforcement of intellectual property rights protection, and cracking down on counterfeits entering the U.S. That’s more of what we needed from both candidates.
Obama countered with his own “get tough” strategy including an increasing number of WTO cases levied against China (most of which are won by the U.S.) that did give temporary advantage to U.S. manufacturers of tires and steel. Both industries, however are slow growth and lacking in innovative strategies to remain globally competitive.
Clear examples and real world solutions were needed, only the solutions part was sorely lacking.
On the security front there was precious little mentioned about China’s rise, the U.S. pivot to Asia, tensions in the South China Sea, North Korea, or recent China-Japan disputes. Obama did say:
“We believe China can be a partner, but we’re also sending a very clear signal that America is a Pacific power; that we are going to have a presence there. We are working with countries in the region to make sure, for example, that ships can pass through; that commerce continues. And we’re organizing trade relations with countries other than China so that China starts feeling more pressure about meeting basic international standards.”
And then the conversation veered off into Detroit autos and cuts to education. There was no grand U.S. policy towards Asia offered by or asked of the candidates.
For the most part U.S. voters aren’t even that concerned about U.S. foreign policy when it comes to picking the president. What they want to see is a candidate capable of securing the country against threats, decisiveness and calmness under pressure. The real concern remains jobs, jobs, and then jobs. That’s why the debate consistently put foreign policy back into the domestic context.
All the candidates really needed to do was get in a few good verbal punches here and there and stay off the ropes. That’s what the debate delivered, but little else.
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