Convention gives contrasting views on relations

Updated: 2012-08-29 01:58

By Zhang Yuwei in Tampa, US (China Daily)

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As members of the US Republican Party gather in Tampa, Florida, for their national convention this week, business leaders say they aren't worried about China-bashing rhetoric from the party's presidential standard-bearer, Mitt Romney.

Increased Chinese investment in the United States and more trade missions by US officials seeking opportunities in China have brought the countries' business communities closer than ever.

"The vast majority of the US economy is open to foreign investment — in particular Chinese investment — and the US will benefit from it," said Christopher Cox, a former Republican congressman and cabinet official who is now a partner with Bingham McCutchen LLP. The law firm helps Chinese companies invest in the United States.

There is a "substantial mutual benefit" to be achieved through bilateral investment, said Cox, a Californian who served nine two-year terms in the House of Representatives before becoming chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission under President George W. Bush.

Negative talk over trade and other economic issues with China shouldn't be confused with the positive influence Chinese investment has had on the US economy, he said.

As Chinese companies become more successful in the United States, "that will begin to distinguish the trade arguments from those having to do with direct investment", Cox said.

So far, five US governors, including Republican Dave Heineman of Nebraska, have led trade missions to China this year seeking investment in the US.

Next month more governors, including Republicans Rick Snyder of Michigan and Brian Sandoval of Nevada — who will speak at this week's Tampa convention — will lead delegations, according to the US-China Business Council, which represents more than 200 US companies doing business in China.

Investment in the US accounts for less than 2 percent of China's total outbound direct investment, but this figure shows "great potential" to grow, Cox said.

The impact of that investment, however, sometimes escapes notice, partly due to Chinese companies' tendency to proceed in a low-key manner.

In March, China's State-owned China Ocean Shipping Group Co celebrated the 10th anniversary of its direct transit route between the Port of Boston and China — a venture that preserved 9,000 maritime and shipping-related jobs in its first year alone.

Cosco Chairman Wei Jiafu said that even during difficult economic times over the past decade, the Chinese company never considered closing the shipping line because it wanted to keep its promise.

Wanxiang America has hired more than 5,000 people in the US, "almost all Americans, with only a dozen Chinese in supporting functions", said Ni Pin, president of the Illinois-based subsidiary of Chinese auto parts supplier Wanxiang Group Corp.

Recently, Wanxiang Group agreed to pay $465 million to acquire up to 80 percent of A123 Systems Inc, a struggling company in Waltham, Massachusetts, that makes lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles.

China Construction America, a subsidiary of China State Construction Engineering Corp, drew the ire of some US politicians and building-industry insiders after it won government contracts that included the renovation of New York City's Alexander Hamilton Bridge.

Yuan Ning, head of its US operation, said the company follows bidding and contract rules and employs mostly Americans on its job sites in the US. In the numerous New York projects it has been awarded, only union members have been hired, Yuan said.

Romney has blasted Beijing for what he says is the central government's failure to let the yuan appreciate, making Chinese exports cheaper than they would be if the currency floated freely on world markets.

Among the casualties of this policy, the Republican argues, are US manufacturers whose goods can't compete with China's imports. Romney has vowed to label China a "currency manipulator" on his first day in office if he's elected.

Zhiqun Zhu, a professor of political science and international relations at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, said China is an "easy target" in this election year, especially when the economy is the top concern of most voters.

"The US-China relationship is marked by both competition and cooperation," Zhu said.

"Often US politicians prefer to highlight the competitive nature of the relationship, and China-bashing has become part of America's election politics."

In reality, he said, the relationship is "much more complicated and much stronger than it appears".

Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman Romney picked as his running mate, told a crowd in Ohio two weeks ago that President Barack Obama hasn't been tough enough on China on trade issues and that the country is treating him like a "doormat".

With the two economic giants having forged closer relations in recent years, many regard such talk as campaign rhetoric meant for a domestic audience frustrated by the weak economic recovery. According to this view, whoever wins the presidency in November will engage with China in a pragmatic manner.

Jon Taylor, a professor of political science at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, said this kind of campaign talk "plays well in swing states like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania with high manufacturing unemployment".

"China and the US are linked to each other — for both good and bad, whether they like it or not. The key is to build a relationship based on consensus, trust and friendship," he said.

On the sidelines of the Republican National Convention, whose start was postponed until Tuesday because of concerns over Tropical Storm Isaac, China is often mentioned.

Globalization and economic interdependence among nations, as well as the financial crisis that roughly coincided with the 2008 presidential election, have made the US parties' quadrennial get-togethers about more than just domestic issues.

"I don't think he has a negative attitude about China per se. I think he would like to continue the relationship with China," Jan Koehne, 71, a Republican delegate from Texas, said of Romney.

"I believe he will be looking for a balance we need between our country and China."

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