Romney the candidate in 2011: We can't just sit back and let China run all over us. People say, 'Well, you'll start a trade war.' There's one going on right now, folks. They're stealing our jobs. And we're going to stand up to China. We have right now something they need very badly, which is access to our market. And our friends around the world have that same power over China.
Fareed Zakaria has an interesting new TIME op-ed on how China should shoulder more of the burden of providing global public goods (no argument from me there). In so doing, he cites the seeming change in Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney on the longstanding virtue of free trade as a warning of how things may worsen if China doesn't change its (evil?) ways. Granted, Obama was making similar noises about China-bashing to curry favour with the Democrats' labour-heavy base. But, the curious thing is that Romney does not need to pander to the likes of the Teamsters and so forth. If you are a believer in the median voter theorem, then the implication of the "Romney Republican" position is that Joe Average has demonstrably turned against free trade. Moreover, China in particular is an "unfair" trade parter.
What our man Fareed Zakaria does is talk about how Republican presidents have, since the time of Nixon thawing the US relationship with China--ping-pong diplomacy and all that--supported closer economic ties. Nixon, Reagan, Bush Major and Bush Minor have not really gone against that tide. But, with Romney becoming nearly indistinguishable from Democratic protectionist blowhards and an unpopular incumbent, who knows if an avowed Republican China-basher can gain the highest office in the land:
The Republican primary campaign has not been noteworthy for its discussion of foreign policy. But one set of statements stands out: Mitt Romney’s on China. In a series of speeches, responses and op-eds, Romney has taken a fierce line, accusing Beijing of cheating “on almost every dimension” in its economic relations with the U.S. and promising to brand it a currency manipulator on his first day as President. “If you are not willing to stand up to China, you will get run over by China,” he said in a debate in October. Romney’s stance is significant because he is breaking with 40 years of Republican foreign policy.So there is another nuanced argument here of China not only losing the support of Joe Average but also of business elites as time goes on. Still, possible shifts in an ostensibly pro-free trade party may mean that fewer mainstream American politicians will hold such views in the near future. While Romney's China-bashing rhetoric may be an Obama-like electioneering ruse, it does point to a larger, worrisome trend.
Ever since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger opened the door, the Republican Party has been the party of engagement with China. Democrats have often campaigned on tougher platforms. So why is Romney—a moderate Republican who is trying his best not to make news during this primary campaign—making this sharp break? The answer can be found in the polls. One of the consequences of this Great Recession is that the American public now has an unreservedly hostile view of China as a job stealer and economic threat. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that more than half of Americans see China’s growth as bad for the U.S. Romney’s shift reflects the fact that even business—the core constituency for good relations with China—is changing its views. As Beijing has adopted policies to favor Chinese companies over foreign ones and refused to crack down on rampant intellectual-property theft, businessmen in the U.S. have become less starstruck and more worried.