The New Hampshire primary provided a glimpse of our political future—and not only in terms of who may win the Republican presidential nomination. It also foreshadowed a coming national debate over trade with China.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney carried the state, as expected. He took 39 percent of the vote and now looks like a strong favorite as the race shifts to South Carolina and Florida.
Romney may in fact have found a winning formula, and part of that formula involves talking tough on China. He has been at it for months—and he hammered China again on Saturday night, in a debate with the other candidates.
“If I’m president of the United States, I’m not going to continue to talk about how important China is and how we have to get along,” he said. “They’re very important, and we do have to get along. But I’m also going to tell the Chinese it’s time to stop. You have to play by the rules. I will not let you kill American jobs any longer.”
Romney lit into the Chinese for “stealing our intellectual property, our patents, our designs, our know-how, and our brand names.” His indictment continued: “They’re hacking into our computers, stealing information from not only corporate computers but from government computers. And they’re manipulating their currency.”
Many of these charges are accurate. But they raise an important question: Is Romney willing to risk a trade war with China?
Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who finished third in New Hampshire with 17 percent, thinks so: “What [Romney] is calling for would lead to a trade war,” he said. Huntsman can claim some expertise on the matter. He was the U.S. ambassador in Beijing and can talk about China in Chinese, as he did on Saturday night, to the puzzlement of many listeners.
Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum—the surprise of the Iowa caucuses but an also-ran in New Hampshire—has complained about the loss of manufacturing jobs in the United States. But he has also warned about starting a trade war with China. “We just need to beat them,” he said last fall.
Romney says he doesn’t want a trade war. That’s good because nobody wins trade wars. Everybody loses. And when it comes to trade with China, Americans have a lot to lose—by 2014, say economists; China will overtake the United States as the world’s biggest importer of goods and services.
This is a business opportunity we should pursue, rather than throw away for the sake of political expediency. Farmers have a special stake in this debate because China buys enormous amounts of soybeans and, increasingly, corn.
Romney appears to understand the importance of international trade. He was a supporter of the recently approved trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. He says the president should have Trade Promotion Authority. He knows that U.S. exports create jobs for Americans.
Yet he has also embraced a dangerous bit of protectionism: He calls for special tariffs on Chinese products, in retaliation for China keeping the value of its currency artificially low. Last fall, the Democrat-led Senate passed a bill to impose these duties, but the Republican-controlled House refused to take up the legislation.
The White House has remained noncommittal. This week, however, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama administration plans to convene a special task force to monitor trade with China “as part of a larger White House effort to get more assertive with Beijing this election year.”
So the bipartisan China bashing is sure to continue.
There is no doubt that China manipulates its currency. The question is whether Washington can compel Beijing to change its ways. More likely, it would just escalate tensions, to the detriment of ordinary people in both countries.
Here’s another idea. Instead of risking a trade war with China, let’s get behind the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Both Obama and Romney say they’re for this initiative, which would create a free-trade zone around the Pacific Rim—but not with China, at least not in the near term.
The best way to get tough with China, while working with our allies, is convincing the Chinese working with us is to their advantage.
John Rigolizzo, Jr. is a fifth generation farmer, raising fresh vegetables and field corn in southern New Jersey. The family farm produces for retail and wholesale markets. John is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).