By Lily Kuo
RESTON, Virginia (Reuters) - Mitt Romney slammed China's "autocratic model" of capitalism in a speech to technology executives on Friday, keeping up attacks on the economic powerhouse days before a visit from a Chinese official expected to be the country's next leader.
China's rise could ultimately threaten U.S. freedom, said Romney, seen as the frontrunner in the Republican race for the nomination to oppose President Barack Obama in the November election.
Romney couched his usual call for limiting government regulation of the U.S. economy in the context of a zero-sum contest with China's fast growing economy.
"China now has a competing strategy which they are selling around the world . and their strategy is this: free enterprise, of a sort," he said, to laughter from the audience, "combined with authoritarianism."
Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to be China's next president, is to be in the United States next week on a visit that could set the mood for relations in the next decade. Both sides want Xi's visit to encourage long-term cooperation between the world's two biggest economies.
Romney has made tough talk on China a centerpiece of his campaign's economic message. He has called the country a cheater and said that if elected president he would seek to label Beijing a currency manipulator.
In his remarks on Friday, Romney said in addition to China, Russia and jihadism threatened to compete with the United States and the West for world leadership.
He said Russia was competing through its use of energy resources and other commodities "to power a new, robust military to threaten the world." The "jihadist model," he said, "is to cause the collapse of the other three and be the last man standing."
"All three of the competitors to the west and to America are based on authoritarianism," Romney said.
"Only if America succeeds as the most powerful model in the world, the most powerful economy, the most powerful military can we ensure our kids and our grandkids and theirs that they will enjoy freedom," he said.
Romney spoke to the Northern Virginia Technology Council, an audience friendly to his core message that he is the candidate best equipped to right a still struggling U.S. economy.
"I'd never heard it put quite like that. With regulations, then on top of that you have us on a playing field with China and Russia, then it is very difficult," said Travis Smith, 34, who works at a science and technology consulting company in Virginia.