WASHINGTON (AP) — The presidential candidates sparred over China during a debate on foreign policy Monday but as usual the focus was less on the Asian giant's rise as a world power than its impact on the American economy.
President Barack Obama and Republican contender Mitt Romney both said they want America to have a positive relationship with China, but Beijing must play by international trade rules.
China played a relatively minor part in the debate — the last topic raised by the moderator in the 90-minute proceedings that were dominated by the security situation in the Middle East.
Romney repeated his threat to designate China a currency manipulator on his first day in office for allegedly undervaluing the yuan to help its exporters, which he said would allow the U.S. to apply punitive tariffs. He also accused the Chinese of stealing U.S. intellectual property and engaging in computer hacking.
"I want a great relationship with China," Romney said. "China can be our partner. But that does not mean they can just roll all over us and take our jobs on an unfair basis."
Obama described China as both an adversary and a potential international partner. He defended his record in addressing China's trade violations, saying his administration had brought more cases than his predecessor, George W. Bush, did in two terms.
The U.S. is running a record trade deficit with China — it reached $295.5 billion in 2011 — and Romney pointed out it has widened year-by-year.
Obama said that in order to build businesses to compete with China in the long-term, the U.S. needed to "take care of business at home" by supporting education and research.
Romney, who said the U.S. could not just "surrender" in the face of trade violations, rolled his eyes at Obama's mention of education as a way of making America more competitive against China.
The tone of the debate — the last of three held between the candidates before the Nov. 6 vote — underscores how the tightly contested election is being fought primarily over the state of the U.S. economy, with unemployment running close to 8 percent.
Neither candidate grappled with the deeper challenges of China's rise: that it has managed to build a competitive economy while maintaining an authoritarian political system. There was also little substantive discussion of the challenge posed to U.S. military pre-eminence in the Asia-Pacific by China's rapid military buildup.
Romney said China needs to create 20 million jobs every year, and that it wants a stable world in which it can trade its goods. But he said China would not respect a United States that has a heavily indebted economy and is cutting back its military.
Obama contended that America was stronger in the world today than when he took office. He said his administration's strategic "pivot" toward the Asia-Pacific as the U.S. winds down its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was because it would be a region of massive economic growth in the future.
"We believe China can be a partner but we are also sending a very clear message that America is a Pacific power and we are going to have a presence there," the president said.