Where Do the Candidates Stand on China?

The following commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet's guest contributor program, which is separate from the company's news coverage.

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The recent revelation that Apple's ( AAPL) business partners aren't always squeaky clean has had China much in the news of late. Reportedly, Foxconn, a Chinese manufacturer that sells computer parts and microchips to Apple subjects its hundreds of thousands of employees to appalling working conditions.

Between January and November of 2010, 18 Foxconn employees attempted suicide, with 14 succeeding, to protest low wages and on-site hazards. Apple's good-guy image took an even more serious hit from headlines in January 2012, when 150 Foxconn workers threatened mass suicide after the company refused to pay promised compensation.

In fairness, Apple is hardly Foxconn's only American customer. Amazon, Intel, IBM, Microsoft and many other American companies reportedly buy from Foxconn. And Foxconn isn't the only Chinese company that allegedly treats its workers inhumanely. Descriptions of working conditions in China sound eerily like those of the U.S. during the industrial revolution, when demand for manufactured goods set the stage for miserable sweatshops and dismal company towns. Still, American companies and consumers must grapple with the ethical dilemmas presented by the availability of cheap goods produced under appalling working conditions in China . . . and so must the president of the U.S.

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The four remaining candidates for the Republican nomination for president are bound to face questions about how the U.S. should interact with China, both as a significant military power and the second-largest economy in the world as well as from a human rights perspective. Strangely enough, however, three of the four the candidates seem unable or unwilling to take a definitive stance.

Perhaps their reluctance reflects a lack of confidence in their ability to speak credibly about China. Of the candidates who initially threw their hats in the ring to seek the Republican presidential nomination, former ambassador to China Jon Huntsman was undoubtedly most familiar with the challenges China presents. Huntsman has withdrawn from the race, though, leaving the Republican Party with four other candidates who lack his hands-on experience in dealing with Beijing.

Of the four candidates still standing, Ron Paul seems most amenable to peaceable engagement with China, even as he recognizes the difficulties that such relations would present. According to The Diplomat, if elected President Paul would terminate America's spy plane missions over China. He would reject a possible tariff on imported Chinese products in retaliation for Beijing's manipulation of the yen. Paul reportedly favors reconsideration of the Taiwan Relations Act, and opposed a Congressional resolution congratulating Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo on his receipt of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. Beijing might be well-pleased if Paul took the Republican Presidential nomination, though the chances of that appear to be dwindling with each Republican primary and caucus.

Santorum and Gingrich

Rick Santorum's stance on China appears to be based, as are many of his positions, on his personal religious convictions. While Santorum has made few specific proposals on how to handle China, his rhetoric has been fiery. In a blog post titled, "10 Steps to Promote Our Interests Around the World," Santorum wrote that "China should be challenged on religious liberty rather than be given a veto on the human-right activists we wish to support."

Interestingly, Santorum went on to observe that China and Islam "are competing for the hearts and minds of much of Africa, and we cannot turn our back from the investment and commitments we have made." Santorum appears to see diplomacy primarily as a battle of religious principles and, if nominated for president, would presumably argue that America should use foreign aid money to promote his strongly-held traditional Christian values around the world.

Perhaps surprisingly, the feisty Newt Gingrich has essentially sidestepped specific criticisms of China and its policies. Instead, Gingrich has focused on strengthening America's ability to compete worldwide with China and, presumably, any other country that poses an economic challenge. His optimistic emphasis on beefing up American competitiveness undoubtedly plays well with Republican voters. However, If Gingrich were to win the Republican nomination, he would be wise to develop a fuller and more specific position on China before debating President Obama.


Mitt Romney

Of all the candidates, intermittent frontrunner Mitt Romney seems to have the best-developed position on the various challenges China presents. (His campaign is also alone among the four in having a searchable Web site.) He has directly accused China of manipulating its currency and proposed aggressive retaliatory tariffs. In a white paper titled "An American Century: A Strategy to Secure America's Enduring Interests and Ideals," Romney warns that China's economic strength and military muscle could enable Beijing to dominate East Asia.

Romney argues that America should maintain a strong military presence in the Pacific while strengthening relations with strategic allies like India and courting new friends like Indonesia. He also urges the U.S. to affirmatively defend human rights in China and promises that a Romney administration would deal directly with civil society groups in China, a promise that Beijing might find more than a little offensive.

Donald Trump reportedly endorsed Mitt Romney in part because he believes Romney would be most effective in debating President Obama. The real estate mogul also likes Romney's aggressive position on competing economically with China. At this point in the primary process, however, it appears that Romney's ability to capture the Republican nomination is far from a done deal.

China is an economic powerhouse, a strong military presence and a diplomatic challenge. President Obama already has a track record on China that will, presumably, come under considerable scrutiny during the general election, and will undoubtedly be able to explain his decisions so that voters will understand them, even if they don't support them. Without a similar track record, the Republican nominee will need to be able to describe his proposed policies on China and explain to voters why his approach would benefit America if he is to effectively counter President Obama's arguments.
This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.