NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Mitt Romney's best weapon for the China debate has also been his worst foe: investments. The Obama campaign on Monday highlighted the Republican presidential nominee's various former investments in Chinese companies like Youku ( YOKU) and Cnooc ( CEO), and linked them to intellectual property theft and piracy. It's a difficult connection for Romney to shake, but those investments also suggest a reality: China is investing in the United States, and those growth prospects could serve to pad the wallets of U.S. citizens and expand the U.S. economy. Instead of cheering the benefits of increased Chinese investments and expanded U.S.-China business partnerships, Romney has mostly criticized the trade partner and called President Barack Obama's China policy a failure. "He
Romney fails to recognize just how huge and how important the trade and investment relationship is between the United States and China," said Donald Lewis, a Stanford Law School research fellow who teaches Chinese law and international economic law. "He's failing to recognize ... the very very substantial dealings that his own private-equity corporation Bain Capital has had with China on so many issues." Though Romney hasn't worked for Bain since he left the firm in February 1999 to work on organization of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, according to a campaign official, the company has listed on its Web site several Chinese investments in recent years. Those investments included China Fire and Security Group (in 2011), ASIMCO Technologies (2010), Gymboree China (2011), JinSheng International (2007), Sinomedia Holding Limited (2006), SUNAC (2009) and Uniview (2011). Romney has refrained from touting his investment record with Bain, and he has generally sidestepped references to the private-equity firm -- this is largely because the Obama campaign has successfully pigeonholed Romney on Bain and equated his work there with pilfering middle-class jobs and shrewd profit-taking. To shed the image of a "China-basher" candidate who is only fixed on trashing the president's platform at all costs, and to re-form a perception that he has a fresh and constructive approach to handle the relationship, though, Romney could take the chance to discuss the advantage of encouraging investment affiliations.
A passing glance at Romney's trade policy with China in his "Plan for Jobs and Economic Growth" reveals a mix of reasonable and antagonistic headlines. The more negative ones include "Impose Targeted Tariffs or Economic Sanctions" and "Designate China a Currency Manipulator and Impose Countervailing Duties." The currency manipulator line is a common one that Romney has used on the election trail, but it is also popular among Democrats. It may be empty rhetoric. "Labeling China as a currency manipulator is probably one of the political things out there, but it's not really clear what the appropriate level for the yuan is," said Michelle Gibley, director of international research at Charles Schwab. "To think that by forcing China to appreciate their currency that suddenly our trade balance with them will equalize is probably a mistaken assumption." In other words, the United States is the largest consumer in the world, so if we aren't buying our toys from China, we'll find them somewhere else. On the other hand, Romney has highlighted some serious concerns in his trade policy with China, like "Protect and Pursue Legal Rights" and "Improve Enforcement at the Border," which calls out "unscrupulous exporters in China and elsewhere" to evade measures the United States imposes in response to unfair trade practices. "The business community that has traditionally been the biggest backer of U.S.-China relations, because of Chinese policy actions -- intellectual property, national champion industries in China -- has caused the business community to pull back and want the U.S. government to play more of a role," said Thomas Fingar, former chief of the China Division at the U.S. State Department. Fingar added that the business community recently has deferred to the government to "play the heavy" to go in and thump the Chinese on the head so it could continue to do business without the broader worries of intellectual property theft and other illegal actions by Chinese firms. This part of Romney's plan -- to punish Chinese companies for unfair and illegal actions -- suggests the Republican nominee's willingness for government intervention to mix with "free enterprise" so as to promote an open market that provides more a favorable investment environment for American firms.
Government intervention in business is an issue Romney has tiptoed around among conservatives and tea party supporters in his own party. The former Massachusetts governor has blamed the president for expansion of government during his term -- bailouts, Obamacare, picking so-called winners and losers in the energy sector -- which those Republican supporters have blamed for the country's current $16 trillion debt. It's not uncommon for the government to step in on behalf of American businesses, in the case of China. Obama has filed eight cases against China at the World Trade Organization in his term. It may be a wise decision in order to protect American enterprises. Romney could benefit among voters by promoting government intervention similar to that which Obama and virtually every American president before him has taken, and note that it's a necessary step to eliminate so-called cheating and help mature the investment relationship between the U.S. and China. A complaint among Americans is that U.S. firms have moved their operations to China, which has hurt jobs here -- Romney has rolled out blame in the past week against Obama's policies for allowing this to happen. Charles Schwab's Gibley said the mood could be shifting. "You're starting to see some companies move out of China and potentially back to the United States, just because the wage differential -- that ability to arbitrage the difference in wages is narrowing," said Gibley. The costs of manufacturing overseas have risen, particularly in China as its yuan currency has strengthened against the U.S. dollar. Economic reforms that have evolved in China since the end of Mao Zedong's leadership came with influence by the United States. Deng Xiaoping, who eventually became the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, understood that a shift from the Soviet-Stalinist model of socialism to a market economy was in the country's best interest. Stanford's Lewis said Romney could focus on collaborative innovation -- technology transfer and technology sharing in which Chinese and U.S. companies work together to advance technology. "Let's face it, the U.S. has a very substantial technological lead on China ... but we are moving towards much greater integration of our two economies," said Lewis.
Lewis said the Chinese government has set aside a massive amount of cash to grow particular sectors of its economy. Many of these sectors are areas where U.S. companies have substantial advantages and are in the position to seize investment opportunities, whether they take place in China or here in the form of overseas direct investment in the U.S. Instead of repeated slams against the Chinese and blaming the president for China having taken advantage of trade partnerships, Romney could benefit from a more positive message that is focused on investment rhetoric. It may be the formula that would convince voters that Romney is smart on China while also striving to protect American interests. Ultimately, decades of stable U.S. policy toward China may be resilient to changes regardless of who wins in November. "Whoever wins, the policy that comes out on the other side is not going to look very different, in my view," said Fingar. -- Written by Joe Deaux in New York. >Contact by Email. Follow @JoeDeaux