President Debate Results: Obama Wins Debate on China


President Obama emerged from tonight's foreign policy debate the clear winner with respect to China. He pointed out that "China is both an adversary, but also a potential partner in the international community if it's following the rules." He said that trade would remain at the heart of his policy if he is re-elected for a second term, recapitulating his administration’s efforts so far to create a level playing field with China. His administration, he explained, has set up a trade task force to go after "cheaters" and has brought more cases against China for violating trade rules in its first term than did the previous administration during its two terms.

The results, he claims, speak for themselves: His administration has slowed the pace at which Chinese companies have been flooding the American market with cheap goods and also opened up new opportunities for American companies to sell more goods to China. He pointed out that American exports to China have doubled during his term in office, not only saving but also creating jobs, which he said Romney derides as protectionism. In conjunction with these successes, he said, America has to make sure that it is "taking care of business here at home." By this, he said he means that the American government has to invest more in educating its young people and also put more money into science and technology research and development if it wants to compete with China. (This is, in fact, the same path on which China has embarked to lift itself up the global value-chain.)  He claimed that "Governor Romney's budget and his proposals would not allow us to make those investments."

Romney countered by claiming that "it's not government that makes business successful." China, he said, shares America’s desire for a "stable world," particularly given that it has 20 million people coming into its cities from the countryside each year looking for jobs. He feels that America "can be a partner with China" because China also "wants the world to be free and open." But he added that China will have to be "responsible." The challenge, in his view, is that the Chinese perceive a weakening of the American economy and military, brought about by high debt and deep defense cuts, and this perception encourages China to not play by the rules. China continues to engage in currency manipulation that hurts American companies and costs jobs. He reiterated his promise to label China a currency manipulator on "day one" of his presidency, allowing the United States "to apply tariffs where they're taking jobs." On the question of whether or not this might precipitate a trade war, Romney said that there is a trade war already going on between China and the United States -- and "they're winning." He went on to state more of the obvious: China is "stealing our intellectual property, our patents, our designs, our technology, hacking into our computers, counterfeiting our goods. I want a great relationship with China but that doesn't mean they can just roll all over us and steal our jobs on an unfair basis."

Romney's China-bashing, however, seemed to fail to articulate a credible plan to address the complexities of China's unfair trade practices and to bring American jobs back from overseas.  Obama undercut his get-tougher-on-China stance by saying that Romney is "familiar with jobs being shipped overseas because [he] invested in companies that were shipping jobs overseas."  Obama managed to turn the question of trade with China into an ideological one that resonates with many voters: whether to stand on the side of American workers or, like Romney, to stand with a "free market" whose excesses over the past decade seem to have lead to a devastating economic crisis. "If we had taken your advice, Governor Romney, about our auto industry," Obama added, "we'd be buying cars from China instead of selling cars to China." Romney took this as a personal attack rather than an opportunity to engage and clear himself of an issue that has haunted him almost from the outset.

Turning to military matters, Obama demonstrated his grasp of the interconnections between China, trade, and the United States' global defense strategy. He stated that America's strategic pivot of military resources towards the Pacific is meant to send "a very clear signal to China that America is a Pacific power." As China comes under more pressure from the United States' deepening trade relations with other countries in the region, it must know that it cannot use its expanding military capabilities to block trade.  It "must," he said, "[meet] basic international standards."