Mitt Romney’s China policy could be yet another flip-flop

Republican candidate Mitt Romney has promised a tougher stance on China, but his policy responses have left a lot to be desired. EPA/Bryan Bedder

With less than a month to go in the presidential campaign, the next two debates provide President Barack Obama with a chance to be more assertive against Republican candidate Mitt Romney following his initial lacklustre performance. As these debates will focus more on foreign policy, whether either candidate will outline a clearer policy approach towards China will be of great interest.

Romney’s stance on China is of considerable importance, as the world’s two largest economies are each other’s second-largest trade partners. The US trade deficit with China was $US295.5 billion in 2011. They are also potential strategic competitors in the Asia–Pacific region, which of course directly concerns Australia.

The implications of a serious deterioration in relations between China and the US, resulting from either a trade war or an escalation of territorial disputes in the Pacific would be dire, threatening the fragile recovery of the global economy at best, and potentially leading to armed conflict in the region at worst.

Romney’s statements on China so far suggest a more confrontational approach. In the competition to appeal to manufacturing workers in crucial swing states, Romney has said he will take action against China “on day one”. He has criticised its tariffs and subsidies on manufactured products and its overvalued Yuan, charging China with being a currency manipulator. China’s practices on intellectual property and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) have also been targets for Romney’s ire.

But during a speech in 2009, Romney criticised the Obama administration’s decision to impose a tariff on Chinese tyres, outlining his neoliberal free trade argument opposing protection against Chinese imports. This stance has turned out to be yet another policy reversal from Romney.

Also relating to China as a potential geopolitical rival, Romney’s declared defence policy is overtly expansionist, aiming to reverse the Obama administration’s planned cuts to the Pentagon’s budget, especially on “big ticket” items like new aircraft, ships, missiles, and Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD). This would suit a confrontational foreign policy, which could result in an arms race with Russia and China, as well as intervention in the Middle East against Syria and Iran.

Romney has stated he would only withdraw US forces from Afghanistan on advice from military commanders, but in essence he appears to be following the overall NATO/US plan to withdraw foreign combat forces by the end of 2014. Given this generally neoconservative stance, Romney should be more likely to demonstrate more overt military support for the USA’s “frontline” allies in the region: Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Australia, to effectively carry out a “containment” policy against China.

For his part, Barack Obama has acknowledged the importance of China in the foreign policy debate, announcing that the US will take China to the World Trade Organization over its trade practices. Obama could also promote his “pivot” policy of an increased US military posture in the Pacific, while seeking to reassure China that the US wishes to ensure peaceful relations. The Obama administration has also shown willingness to pursue diplomatic resolutions to territorial disputes in the region, particularly over the South China Sea.

President Obama meets with his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, at a summit in January 2011. EPA/Alex Wong

During a recent speech to the Clinton Global Initiative, Romney declared his inclination to abandon reliance on foreign aid. Instead, free enterprise and business growth, through opening markets to US trade and investment in developing countries, would ideally encourage job creation as the key to resolving conflict. Engaging in trade disputes with China would seem to run counter to this objective.

In any case, foreign policy has proved to be relatively marginal in the 2012 campaign, although recent turmoil in the Middle East has potentially raised its profile, enabling Romney to rally his support base with hawkish posturing, promoting the idea of the US as unchallenged in its future military and economic strength.

Influenced by an ever more nationalist Tea Party-influenced Republican Party, a Romney administration would be likely to return to the neoconservative foreign policy agenda of the Bush Administration, and therefore risk making similar mistakes. Romney’s personal forays into foreign policy do not engender much confidence, witnessed in his gaffe-prone visit to Europe during the Olympics.

The next two debates will give Romney more opportunities to advocate a more coherent position on all these international issues. If he can repeat a strong performance, the race may yet tighten further, although polling still indicates it is more likely the world will be spared finding out what a Romney administration has in store for it.

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