Kind Words for China from Romney?

In last night’s presidential debate, this one focused on foreign policy, Republican candidate Mitt Romney had some kind words for China:

“China has an interest that’s very much like ours in one respect, and that is they want a stable world. They don’t want war. They don’t want to see protectionism. They don’t want to see the — the world break out into — into various forms of chaos, because they have to — they have to manufacture goods and put people to work. And they have about 20,000 — 20 million, rather, people coming out of the farms every year, coming into the cities, needing jobs. So they want the economy to work and the world to be free and open. And so we can be a partner with China. We don’t have to be an adversary in any way, shape or form. We can work with them. We can collaborate with them if they’re willing to be responsible.”

This tone didn’t necessarily continue, as Mr. Romney repeated his promise to label China a currency manipulator, something that moderator Bob Schieffer suggested could trigger a “trade war.” But this particular statement is the kindest Mr. Romney has been to China in the entire campaign and seems to reflect some of the understanding that former China ambassador and one-time Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman has expressed.

Can we use this statement to discern a coherent position about China from Mr. Romney? First, it would appear that Mr. Romney does indeed differ in his views on China compared to President Barack Obama. Mr. Obama stuck to his previous positions in suggesting that the United States will partner with China as long as China “plays by the rules” in regards to international trade agreements. Mr. Obama offered no claims that China was primarily interested in pursuing policies that will promote global peace.

But Mr. Romney also differed from his own statements about China later in his answer. He suggested that cuts to America’s military spending would give China an opening to expand its influence abroad, knowing that such influence wouldn’t be challenged by the United States. This suggests China is a bellicose nation, interested in provocation not reconciliation.

Is the best position to perceive China both as a partner and a rival? There are two distinctions to be made. First, we can see China as a producer in the global economy, rather than a consumer like the United States and other more developed nations. Second, we can see China as interested in expanding its international influence through the use of foreign aid money, rather than an isolationist nation focused on fixing problems at home.

But if Mr. Romney wants to label one as good (globalization means goods get produced for less due to cheap labor) and the other as bad (China giving money to other countries), then he is stuck at a fundamental impasse. We cannot support China in manufacturing while also bemoaning the way they use the money this business brings in. And if we embrace China’s growing influence (for example, if we see them as seeking peace and stability in the world), then we should also embrace their manufacturing given the good that the money produces.

Where is the role for aggressive talk against China? When workers work for wages far below the US standard, and infrastructure means manufacturing costs are much lower, what ability does a politician have to demand jobs come back to the United States? And how much can a politician gain from embracing the logic of globalization? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but Mr. Romney’s answers on China came closest to illustrating the dialectics that shape the United States’ relationship with China.

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