WASHINGTON (AP) — While U.S. presidential candidates talk tough about what they see as China's unfair trade policies, one fact gets little notice: Chinese companies are investing more than ever in the U.S. and supporting thousands of American jobs.
With two separate billion-dollar deals in a struggling chain of movie theaters and in shale oil and gas, as well as other major ventures in the works, investment from China is set to hit record levels in 2012. Its cash-rich companies have expanded their presence here in the past three years, eager to tap the lucrative American market and U.S. knowhow.
The jobs created don't offset what American politicians and some economists see as the millions of jobs lost because of China's currency policies and the theft of intellectual property. Also, Chinese investment, especially in telecommunications and other sensitive businesses, isn't always welcome.
But the growth in investment underscores how the relationship between the U.S. and China is more complicated than depicted on the campaign trail. Cheap Chinese products have benefited American consumers, and China's massive purchases of Treasury securities have helped finance the U.S. budget deficit. And while Chinese investment in the U.S. is barely off the starting blocks given the size of its economy, some believe it could become a major source for American jobs.
"There's a huge amount of ignorance in the U.S. marketplace of how to take advantage of potential Chinese investment," said Larry Morrissey, independent mayor of Rockford, Ill., a city of 150,000 that hosts three major Chinese companies. While money is tight in the U.S., he said, Chinese firms want to invest and have the funds to do it.
But in the presidential campaign, China seems to attract only negative attention.
"They steal our intellectual property rights. They block access to their markets. They manipulate their currency," Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan told supporters in Ohio last week. He accused President Barack Obama of allowing China to treat him like a "doormat" and vowed Mitt Romney would crack down on China cheating.
Obama, who has sought deeper ties with China, says his administration has nevertheless stepped up trade complaints and announced one in response to Chinese tariffs on U.S. auto exports during a campaign trip to Ohio in July.
But both the administration and the Republican-supporting U.S. Chamber of Commerce are actively seeking Chinese investment. They want to capitalize on the ambitions of state-owned and private Chinese companies to expand from the developing world to developed countries.
The private Rhodium Group, which closely tracks Chinese foreign direct investment, puts the total attracted to the U.S. since 2000 at $20.9 billion. It predicts that Chinese companies could invest between $1 trillion and $2 trillion internationally by 2020 and a significant chunk of that investment could come to the U.S.
"Chinese firms are arriving at the inflection point at which it makes sense for them to be developing more of a commercial presence in the United States and Europe," said Daniel Rosen, partner at the New York-based group.
While China is still far from emulating the outward expansion of Japanese companies into the United States the 1980s, the Japanese experience could be a formative example. Fears then that the U.S. economy might be dominated by Japan proved unfounded. Today, Japanese-affiliated companies employ about 700,000 Americans.
As a strategic and emerging military rival of the U.S., however, China brings with it more baggage. China still restricts foreign investment in much of its own economy. Many of its biggest companies looking to invest abroad are state-controlled.
Cybersecurity is also a major concern because of repeated reports of cyberattacks on Western companies and government departments originating from China. That has dented the prospects for its telecommunications and technology giants.
U.S. lawmakers have often weighed in on the debate. The House Intelligence Committee is investigating Huawei, one of the world's biggest suppliers of telecom gear, and its rival, ZTE, examining their ties to the Chinese government. It is also probing reports that ZTE is supplying surveillance equipment to Iran.
Pin Ni, president of the American arm of the private Wanxiang Group, an auto parts and renewable energy manufacturer that has close to 6,000 employees in the U.S., said negative views of China and political tensions between the two governments deter some companies. Yet in reality, he said, that's little impediment to doing business.
Ni set up Wanxiang America from a home office in Mount Prospect, Ill., in 1994, essentially as a sales outlet for the parent company. It now has 27 manufacturing facilities across 14 states and annual revenues of more than $2 billion and supplies most of the major American auto manufacturers. He said that only about 10 percent of the parts it supplies in the U.S. are now sourced from China.
"Our labor costs are higher (in the U.S.) but our overall costs are lower because it's more efficient here," he said.
Morrissey, the Rockford mayor, said Wanxiang had acquired a struggling auto parts manufacturer in his city. Attracted by the Chinese company's long-term commitment to the U.S., Rockford chose Wanxiang to develop a $12.5 million solar panel manufacturing plant employing 60 people and a large solar power farm as part of the city's strategy to attract more green business.
Two other major Chinese firms have investments in Rockford, including Dalian Machine Tool Group, which acquired Ingersoll Production Systems and employs 100 people. Rockford is also in talks with Wanxiang about plans to modernize the city center.
"A lot of American cities are completely on the sidelines," said Morrissey, who has made several trade missions to China. "I don't see many cities, especially cities of our size, doing what we are doing, of being proactive and looking to exploit the opportunities there are for Chinese investment."
Joy Huang, president of Connect East, which advises mostly Chinese state-owned enterprises on working in the U.S., said companies want to establish their own brand presence here — something few Chinese firms have achieved, other than appliance-maker Haier and computer-maker Lenovo. She said the main challenge is learning to comply with the many regulations and customizing products for picky American consumers.
Chinese companies are targeting a wide range of industries, also including aerospace, banking, metals processing and plastics. In a sign of those diversifying interests, conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group announced in May it is acquiring cinema chain AMC Entertainment Holdings for $2.6 billion, the biggest Chinese takeover of an American company to date.
Associated Press business writer Joe McDonald in Beijing contributed to this report.