In recent weeks, a trend in the US Democratic primaries has been the increased tough talk on globalization and its effects on America’s manufacturing sector. This is a topic – surprise, surprise – that strikes chords in states like Ohio. Senators Obama and Clinton have been one-upping each other in speeches and debates on the virtues of protectionism and the evils of NAFTA (though Obama reportedly sent signals to the Canadian government to reassure them that, hey, it’s all just campaign talk to win the nomination – pandering is the name of the game**).
So where do the candidates stand on China? We learn from The Nation‘s Campaign ’08 blog (via the China Law Blog*) that, when asked by a coalition of labor, agricultural and environmental groups what they would do about “China’s unfair advantage over Ohio workers and manufacturers,” Obama said:
“I recognize that China’s currency manipulation and domestic subsidies gives it an unfair trade advantage and has led to U.S. job losses. The Bush administration has utterly failed to address this growing threat to U.S. businesses. I am committed to tackling this problem and ensuring that all trade manipulations are addressed by the U.S. government. I have cosponsored tough legislation in the U.S. Senate to overhaul the U.S. process for determining currency manipulation and authorize new enforcement measures so countries like China cannot continue to get a free pass for undermining fair trade principles. I have also supported proposals to increase tariffs on Chinese goods in order to offset the advantage their goods receive due to currency manipulation. As president, I will immediately adopt a strong program to push the Chinese toward voluntary reform – a goal that is possible with the right leadership in Washington.”
Manipulation talk. “Tough” legislation. A “strong program” to “push the Chinese” toward “voluntary reform.” So far, sounds like a typical member of Congress to me, albeit with the slightly mixed image of pushing someone to do something voluntarily.
Here’s what Mrs. Clinton said:
“The Bush administration has failed to make China play by the rules. Consequently, our workers – particularly those in manufacturing states like Ohio – have paid a price. That is why as President, I will crack down on China’s unfair trade practices. I have co-sponsored the Currency Exchange Rate Oversight Reform Act, which will require the administration to take definitive steps to stop China and other countries from harming American interests by undervaluing their currencies. And because currency manipulation is contributing to the trade deficit, I have also co-sponsored legislation that will require the administration to address the ballooning trade deficit. As President, I will make enforcement of trade agreements a priority. To that end, I will appoint a trade enforcement officer and double the enforcement staff at the Office of the United States Trade Representative. The current staff is too small to monitor and enforce the increasingly complex trade agreements.”
Her answer, true to form, is wonkier and emphasizes specific experience more than Obama’s, but it sounds like the same tune to these ears.
Do either (or both) of them mean what they say? No word so far on whether Team Obama has slipped a back-channel note through to placate Hu Jintao (although if he did, that sounds like something that the Chinese, unlike the Canadians, would keep to themselves for now). To be sure, this was almost certainly not aimed at a Chinese audience, but people in the PRC will be taking note of what these candidates say. Or at least they will at some point – certainly after they’re through being bombarded with news reports from the National People’s Congress.
The pattern in past elections has been that candidates who talk tough on China soften their tone once they get into the White House (see: Clinton, William J.). Will that hold true this year? It will be interesting to watch, especially around Olympics time, when George W. Bush comes to Beijing (as a “sports fan,” he helpfully points out). Campaign talk is one thing, but if the (hopefully nominated by then) Democratic candidate goes too far in denouncing Bush’s visit – say, by getting caught up in “genocide games” rhetoric – well, that might be harder to take back.
* Geeky aside to China Law Blog’s Dan Harris: We love your blog, but we love our RSS reader as well. Please, oh please, consider a feed not powered by the blocked-in-China Feedburner.
** Update: According to Canada’s own Globe and Mail, Obama isn’t the only one seeking to reassure the neighbors to the north:
Mr. Brodie, during the media lockup for the Feb. 26 budget, stopped to chat with several journalists, and was surrounded by a group from CTV.
The conversation turned to the pledges to renegotiate the North American free-trade agreement made by the two Democratic contenders, Mr. Obama and New York Senator Hillary Clinton.
Mr. Brodie, apparently seeking to play down the potential impact on Canada, told the reporters the threat was not serious, and that someone from Ms. Clinton’s campaign had even contacted Canadian diplomats to tell them not to worry because the NAFTA threats were mostly political posturing.