A day after top U.S. Chamber of Commerce officials criticized political candidates who use Chinese trade and currency policies as punching bags en route to election, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney did just that in an op-ed printed by the Wall Street Journal Thursday.
"We have much to gain from close relations with a China that is prosperous and free," Romney wrote. "But we should not fail to recognize that a China that is a prosperous tyranny will increasingly pose problems for us, for its neighbors, and for the entire world."
He criticized the Obama administration's approach to China and vowed to get tough on what he called unfair trade practices.
"In the economic arena, we must directly counter abusive Chinese practices in the areas of trade, intellectual property, and currency valuation," Romney wrote. "While I am prepared to work with Chinese leaders to ensure that our countries both benefit from trade, I will not continue an economic relationship that rewards China's cheating and penalizes American companies and workers."
Romney warned that although a trade war with China "is the last thing" he wants, unless China changes its current practices he would designate a "currency manipulator and take appropriate counteraction" on the first day of his presidency.
Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, speaking Wednesday at a panel discussing global competitiveness during a four-day conference hosted by General Electric in Washington, D.C., said politicians do no favors for businesses when they make broad, protectionist attacks on China.
"From the point of view of a congressman or a senator, it makes all the sense in the world. It doesn't have to work, it just sounds great," he said. "When you have a seriously stressed domestic economy and high unemployment, I don't care what country you're in, you're going to get more protectionism. That's the history of the world. While it's politically and emotionally desirable to have protectionist activities at the time, it just slows you down from getting to where you want to go."
John Rice, vice chairman and president of GE Global Growth and Operations, who was moderating the panel, said there's a bit of nodding and winking when it comes to politicians discussing China, but it is nonetheless destructive.
"You've made reference to the candidates for president and there have been comments about global trade and about trade with China that are frankly, astounding," he said. "And I understand everyone kind of says, well, it's just election year politics. But there's a real negative, there's a hangover with stuff like that, because that's what people remember, right? And it's not quite that hard to change their mind afterward."
Donohue offered a cynical take on the politics behind the rhetoric.
"You know how you run for office – you run all the surveys and find out what the people who are most likely to vote are most likely to respond to," he said. "You've got to answer those questions and you've got to understand that we've got to sell it not to the sophisticated, because they can pick it up in a hurry. We've got to sell it to the people that have been listening to all those arguments from all those sources for a long, long time."
The result, Donohue and Rice said, was that Americans deeply believe outsourcing jobs or opening factories or offices in China only harms them, rather than helps to create new economic opportunities.
Even former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who endorsed Romney after dropping his own bid for the GOP presidential nomination, told MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell Thursday that he opposed Romney's op-ed.
"Let's just say that it's not unusual for candidates to be saying certain things about China," said Huntsman, Obama's former U.S. ambassador to China. "I've seen a lot of candidates who later became president, who use a lot of rhetoric. It's much easier to talk about China in terms of the fear factor than the opportunity factor."