In last night’s debate, Mitt Romney did a lot of pledging to do things that a president cannot. Along with his unexplained tax ideas, he brought up his much-repeated assurance that he will build the US economy by “cracking down on China.” In his frequent campaign rhetoric, the US has a trade deficit with cheaters and he can make our economy strong by talking tough and demanding fair play. In truth, he will not “crack down” on China and stop cheating. He will do nothing more or better than President Obama in our trade relationship with China. He will not because he cannot. The American president, whoever he is, has the same negotiation tools and opportunities.
Romney is not alone in accusing China of playing unfairly in trade, nor is this an issue that only Republicans are raising. Senator Bob Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, has been raising the issue for a long time. And look where that gets us. China does not tremble.
The US President can tell the Chinese, “If you want to keep selling in America, you need to follow certain trade rules and international labor standards. You’ve cheated and so we’re not going to let you keep selling your electronics and toys to us.”
The Chinese can then say, “Very well. Until you see things differently, we’ll stop allowing you to sell your cars and other vehicles in China.” China will say this as calmly to a Romney administration as to President Obama. And American auto manufacturers will not allow Mitt Romney to stand on a principle that is located under their necks any more than they allow President Obama to do so.
China will not be “cracked down” upon by a White House governed by its corporate sponsors and will not be pushed around by its debtors. If Mr. Romney calls China a cheater, China will say, “You’re being very rude. There are more polite countries that are willing to pay a higher return on Chinese investments. Perhaps we’ll stop lending to you.” And then Mr. Romney will apologize for the misunderstanding. He’ll stop talking tough until the next election. The only thing he can achieve by calling China a cheater is to harm an important and sometimes difficult relationship. This is partly why Republican foreign policy strategist and Sino-US relations expert Henry Kissinger criticized Mr. Romney just this week for his references to “cheating” China in his campaign ads.
Mitt Romney knows all this. He is simply offering plans that he cannot and will not implement. During an election season, the American public needs to be able to distinguish bold-sounding words from plans that might ever be carried out. The US government today does not crack down on cheating China and this will not change next year, regardless of who sits in the White House. But the Romney campaign team is willing to create a diplomatic problem and worry later about who will clean up the mess, and through what sort of concessions.