Obama, Romney Trade Substance for Politics on China

American voters deserve a substantive debate between the presidential candidates about how the U.S. can manage China’s rise as a powerful economic and geopolitical rival in the coming decades.

Unfortunately, President Barack Obama and the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, have so far been unwilling to have that discussion.

Instead, the candidates have waged a war of words that gives voters oversimplified -- and sometimes false -- explanations of a vital and complex issue. Obama accuses Romney of sending jobs to China and other overseas destinations as co- founder of Bain Capital LLC, the private-equity firm. Romney calls Obama the “outsourcer-in-chief” for overseeing the diversion of millions of dollars in stimulus funds to foreign companies. Fact-checking groups have debunked the claims, yet both sides continue to make them.

The one-upmanship reached a new level this week when Obama announced that the U.S. has lodged a complaint with the World Trade Organization that China illegally subsidized exports of automobiles and auto parts, and illegally imposed duties on U.S. car exports. It surely was no coincidence that he made this announcement at a campaign stop in Ohio, a battleground state where the car-parts industry employs 54,200 people and 12.4 percent of all workers are linked to the auto sector. Oh, and early voting begins in Ohio in 15 days.

The WTO complaint asserts that the Chinese government provided at least $1 billion in subsidies that benefited as much as 60 percent of Chinese car-parts exports. These subsidies put U.S. component manufacturers at a competitive disadvantage, which encourages outsourcing to China, the U.S. said.

Submissive Approach

Romney dismissed the move as an electoral ploy that in any case was “too little, too late.” He has made what he says is the administration’s submissive approach to China a centerpiece of his campaign and has vowed, if elected, to designate the Beijing government as a currency manipulator on his first day in office.

There is no reason to doubt the validity of the administration’s charges, though it’s worth asking whether the U.S. hasn’t engaged in similar behavior in providing almost $80 billion in direct aid, stimulus funds and loans to rescue the auto industry in recent years. Nor, for that matter, is Romney wrong to accuse China of keeping the exchange value of its currency artificially low to fuel its exports machine. It is even appropriate to point out that China’s growing clout has been built in no small measure on a disregard for the rules of international trade.

But it doesn’t help the cause to make China a scapegoat for manufacturing job losses and threaten a trade war over its fixed exchange rates. The reality is that the U.S. and Chinese economies are inextricably tied -- China holds about $1 trillion of U.S. debt, and American consumers buy billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese goods every year. Besides, China has gradually let its currency rise against the dollar. Applying more pressure could have the opposite effect, because China loathes looking as if it’s capitulating to the U.S.

The issue is too important to be weaponized into sound bites to score political points in the heartland. Both candidates should acknowledge that bluster can only worsen the dynamics of this crucial relationship. They should explain instead how they intend to maintain the U.S.’s long-term competitiveness.

The global economy is here to stay, for good and bad. Rising powers such as China and India, with more than 2 billion potential consumers for U.S. goods and services, need to be coaxed to play by the rules of international trade because of the benefits it provides, not to avoid the threat of retaliation if they don’t. How best to do that is the discussion we wish Obama and Romney would have.

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Today’s highlights: the editors on how Congress has let companies shortchange pension funds; Edward Glaeser on Obama’s missed chances for long-term economic reform; Adam Minter on China’s anti-Japanese riots; Ramesh Ponnuru on the makers versus takers election; Shikha Dalmia on why immigrants can’t save U.S. cities by themselves; Harvey S. Rosen on economic growth from Romney’s tax-reform plan.

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