Romney, Zoellick And Asia

by Gwynn Guilford

Against the backdrop of the Paul Ryan pick and the significance of Romney's appointment of a known China-cuddler to his foreign policy staff, it might be worth revisiting what one of those Incredibly Boring White Guys said recently about Romney's China policy.

[Rob] Portman, a Romney campaign surrogate and presumed vice presidential contender, also defended Romney who has come under fire for a campaign pledge to declare China a currency manipulator on his first day in office. He said Romney would balance his push for more free trade agreements with a tough trade enforcement agenda, focusing especially on China. "He’s for immediately changing our trade policy to access the 95 percent of consumers that live outside of our borders by being aggressive on trade openings," Portman said. "He’d get trade promotion authority from Congress and then begin serious negotiations to open up markets."

To Larison's point about Romney's general lack of a foreign policy track record, it's hard to find much in the way of details here. But while it's not clear to me how Portman's words change much of anything compared with Obama's tack, Romney's "Reagan Economic Zone" plan doesn't really clarify either:

Although China is unlikely to accede to the Reagan Economic Zone given its current approach to trade, offering Beijing the possibility of participation will give China significant incentives to end its abusive commercial practices. But with or without China as a member, the Reagan Economic Zone will establish a system of trade that could knit together the entire region, discouraging imbalanced bilateral trade relations between China and its neighbors, limiting China’s ability to coerce other countries, and ultimately encouraging China to participate in free trade on fair terms.

Though there's definitely a lot to be worried about on the coercion-of-other-countries front, it seems that the implied current lack of aggression is a misdiagnosis. The US definitely needs fairer trade arrangements with China – but my sense is that it's more compliance with the terms, and not exactly terms themselves, since so much of China's upper hand comes from its willingness to simply flout said terms when it suits. Also, figuring out how to confront China's increasingly effective use of the WTO and its indigenous innovation strategy should be a priority. Achieving those things might require some finesse, though, rather than brute force. Would Zoellick deliver? No idea. But for reference, here is an example of his approach to trade policy with China, from a World Bank speech earlier this year:

Sometimes in trade or international economic relations…, the disputes have become somewhat of a zero sum traditional trade off. For creative officials in China as well as in other countries, [a recent World Bank] report actually offers some additional opportunities for win/win mutual gains….

As China's labor force starts to get smaller and yet there is an interesting increase in wage growth, you're going to need to have innovation and productivity increases. So you've heard some of the Chinese officials talk about stronger intellectual property rights protection and ways of supporting innovation and technology development. That's another potential win/win. I think you'll find the same in areas like energy and water efficiency.

Sounds…sensible. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Asia, Romney has irked another ally, notes Josh Rogin – this time by identifying Japan as a country suffering from "decline and distress for a decade or a century":

[Japan experts] worry that Romney is needlessly insulting the face-conscious Japanese and giving them the impression that if he wins in November, his administration won't appreciate the importance of America's top alliance in the East at a time when the United States is attempting a diplomatic and military "pivot" to Asia.

Devin Stewart, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council."Japanese are quite sensitive to statements like this. They are constantly assessing the tone of U.S. candidates relative to those made about other Asian countries. Bashing Japan is now quite passé and even tone deaf. Has Romney even visited Japan? Is he aware of the 2011 earthquake?"

Sounds like a great way to foil the Red Menace! Previous coverage here and here.