As Election Approaches, Obama Sharpens Rhetoric on China

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Larry Downing / Reuters

President Barack Obama speaks to the press at the end of the APEC Summit in Honolulu, Nov. 13, 2011.

Barack Obama’s first trip through Asia was about avoiding direct confrontation and modeling his new, un-Bush approach to foreign policy: More committed to international cooperation and deliberation, less aggressive in its expression of American power. Now Obama is again meeting with Asian leaders, as he prepares for a challenging re-election campaign. The stakes have changed, and so has the Obama message.

As it now stands, the American people are clearly worried about China, which has been lapping the United States in the global economic race for years. According to Gallup, Americans see China as the most “vitally important” country to the U.S., a dramatic shift from 2007, when Iran, Iraq and North Korea all rated as more influential on U.S. interests. The Pew Research Center has shown, meanwhile, that much of that new attention to China is less than positive. When asked if U.S. policy should be focused on “getting tougher” with China or “building a stronger relationship,: 40% of the country chooses “getting tougher.” That includes 51% of Republicans or Republican leaners, compared to just 32% of Democrats or Democratic leaners.

To respond to this growing anxiety, which Joe Klein writes about in the current newsstand issue of TIME, Republican candidate Mitt Romney has created a hawkish general-election message on China. Here was Romney in the CBS/National Journal debate on Saturday:

They can’t hack into our computer systems and steal from our government. They can’t steal from corporations. They can’t take patents and designs, intellectual property, and– and– and– and duplicate them– and duplicate them and counterfeit them and sell them around the world. And they also can’t manipulate their currency in such a way as to make their prices well below what they otherwise would be. We have to have China understand that like everybody else on the world stage, they have to play by the rules.

Romney went on to say that China was running over the policies of Barack Obama, and that he would declare China to be a currency manipulator as president. As Klein points out, this approach echoes Bill Clinton’s tough-on-China rhetoric from the 1992 campaign. It also demands a response from Obama, who will no doubt be hammered on China if Romney wins the Republican nomination.

And so, on his current trip to meet with Asian leaders, Obama is laying out a more aggressive posture. He confronted Chinese President Hu Jintao, according to reports from U.S. officials, by saying the Chinese were not changing its currency policy quickly enough. The guardian of Obama’s foreign policy message, meanwhile, has been broadcasting a more aggressive tone. In a press conference Sunday in Hawaii, Obama offered a tougher line on China, while being careful with his language:

Sometimes, American companies are wary about bringing [concerns about Chinese trade practices] up because they don’t want to be punished in terms of their ability to do business in China.  But I don’t have that same concern, so I bring it up. And in terms of enforcement, the other thing that we’ve been doing is actually trying to enforce the trade laws that are in place.  We’ve brought a number of cases — one that the U.S. press may be familiar with are the cases involving U.S. tires, where we brought very aggressive actions against China and won.  And as a consequence, U.S. producers are in a better position, and that means more U.S. jobs. So I think we can benefit from trade with China.  And I want certainly to continue cultivating a constructive relationship with the Chinese government, but we’re going to continue to be firm in insisting that they operate by the same rules that everybody else operates under.  We don’t want them taking advantage of the United States or U.S. businesses.

You can’t exactly put that on a bumper sticker, but it is a signal that Obama is not ready to cede the issue of China next year. It is too soon to tell if it will be enough to blunt the coming Republican offensive.