WASHINGTON – With the 2012 election cycle heating up, US politicians this week harnessed worries over a rising China to power support for everything from patent law reform to debt reduction – and their own ambitions.
US President Barack Obama led the pack, warning Thursday that crumbling US infrastructure threatened Washington’s standing as “an economic superpower” as he laid out a battle plan for assaulting 9.1 percent unemployment.
“And now we’re going to sit back and watch China build newer airports and faster railroads?” he said in a campaign-style speech aimed at shoring up his embattled re-election prospects, weighted down by the sluggish US economy.
Fighting much the same battle, Republican White House hopeful Mitt Romney on Tuesday made confronting China over its alleged currency manipulation and rampant theft of US intellectual property a cornerstone of his economic plan.
“I have no interest in starting a trade war with China, but I cannot accept our current trade surrender,” said the former Massachusetts governor, who trails Texas Governor Rick Perry in the fight for the party’s presidential nomination.
Representative Jeb Hensarling, the top Republican on a new “Supercommittee” ordered to shave more than one trillion dollars from US debt in ten years, noted Beijing is Washington’s largest overseas creditor.
“In interest payments alone, we are enabling China to buy two jet fighters a week,” he said as the panel formally took up its mission on Thursday.
“Is it not our public duty to respond to this kind of warning with the same alarm and resolve that would be summoned to defeat any other threat to our nation?” he asked.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, launching a fight to beat back defense cuts he warns will lead to the “hollowing out” of the US military, said he would lead fellow lawmakers to China, Taiwan and South Korea in late September amid worries about Beijing’s growing arsenal.
“It’ll give some members of the committee a little better understanding of what we’re facing over there,” McKeon told reporters of the visit.
And China’s economic rise also featured as US lawmakers sent Obama legislation to drag US patent law into the Internet age and spur high-tech innovation.
A statement on House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, a key author of the measure, warned that it was needed because “this year, for the first time, China is expected to become the world’s number one patent publisher, surpassing the US and Japan in the total and basic number of patents.”
Amid the chorus of warnings, Vice President Joe Biden took to the New York Times opinion page to argue for a “clear-eyed” approach to Beijing’s growing clout while saying reports of US economic demise were greatly exaggerated.
“Some may warn of America’s demise, but I’m not among them,” Biden, who stopped in China on an August Asia trip, said in the Thursday column. “And let me reassure you: based on my time in China, neither are the Chinese.”
Biden acknowledged that Americans worry about what China’s rise means for America and the world, but rejected the view that it portends a “cold-war-style rivalry or great power confrontation.”
“I remain convinced that a successful China can make our country more prosperous, not less,” he wrote.
And at a Republican presidential candidate debate on Wednesday, former US envoy to Beijing Jon Huntsman chided Romney over his plan, saying: “I’d have to say, Mitt, now is not the time, in a recession, to enter a trade war.
The phenomenon is not a new one – politicians, especially in election season, have talked tough about China, or Japan, or even, in the wake of the September 11th attacks, Saudi Arabia.
“A big part of it is politics,” Republican Senator Bob Corker, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told AFP, emphasizing that Washington and Beijing have a largely “symbiotic” economic relationship.
But, Corker said, the United States has to tread carefully to avoid embracing policies “having the effect of giving China an even greater competitive advantage than they have” on the economic front.