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Monday, September 17, 2012

Filing Trade Suit, Obama Raps Romney on China


CINCINNATI â€" President Obama, under renewed fire from Mitt Romney for not standing up to China on behalf of American workers, used a rally in this battleground state on Monday to announce a new trade case against Beijing. He said it was Mr. Romney who had sent jobs to China through his zealous practice of outsourcing at Bain Capital.

After a week of anti-American violence in the Middle East threw Mr. Romney off stride and left Mr. Obama potentially vulnerable, the shift to China put the presidential campaign and both candidates back on familiar ground, allowing each to try out new lines to showcase their toughness and caricature the fecklessness of their opponent.

â €œMy opponent has been running around Ohio claiming he's going to roll up his sleeves and he's going take the fight to China,” the president said to a crowd of 4,500 at a hillside park here. “Here's the thing: his experience has been owning companies that were called pioneers in the business of outsourcing jobs to countries like China.”

“Ohio,” the president declared, “you can't stand up to China when all you've done is send them our jobs.”

Mr. Obama, deploying the full powers of incumbency, announced that the United States would file a broad lawsuit against China at the World Trade Organization, charging that it subsidizes its auto and auto parts industries to the detriment of American manufacturers.

It is the latest in a string of trade actions against China taken by the Obama administration, and the second announced by the president on the eve of a campaign visit to Ohio, where the auto parts industry employs 52,400 people. In July â€" just before he flew to Toledo, home of a Jeep Wrangler factory â€" the White House filed a complaint against Beijing for levying $3.3 billion in duties on American automobiles.

The White House insisted that the lawsuit announced on Monday was “months in the making,” though it was hardly shy about promoting its campaign benefits.

“It's not as if because we're in the midst of an election that we should wait until next year to take these steps on behalf of American workers,” Josh Earnest, the deputy press secretary, said.

Mr. Romney fired back even before Mr. Obama spoke, accusing him of doing “too little, too late” to curb China's unfair trade practices. The latest trade case, Mr. Romney said, was little more than a campaign stunt, failing to compensate for his unwillingness to take other actions, like labeling China a currency manipulator.

“President Obama's credibility on this issue has long since vanished,” Mr. Romney declared in a statem ent. “I will not wait until the last months of my presidency to stand up to China, or do so only when votes are at stake.”

The Obama and Romney campaigns also unveiled tit-for-tat China commercials â€" Mr. Romney's accusing the president of repeatedly passing up chances to get tough on Beijing, and Mr. Obama's accusing his challenger of outsourcing jobs to China, through his work at Bain Capital, and for having investments in Chinese companies.

Bashing China is a tried-and-true campaign strategy for both parties, particularly in swing states like Ohio, where a heavy loss of manufacturing jobs has coincided with a surge of Chinese-made auto parts into the United States.

For Mr. Obama, however, it is a notable shift from 2008, when he modulated his anti-China remarks, in part because the job market was not as central an issue in that election and in part because his foreign policy advisers warned him that if he made China a punching bag, he would spend mo nths as president repairing the damage.

Once in office, Mr. Obama became frustrated by what he views as China's refusal to play by the rules, according to current and former officials. In the fall of 2009, he imposed a tariff on China over its dumping of tires into the American market. This was by far the most conspicuous of a stream of trade actions; before this year, most of the cases were fairly obscure, covering goods like flat-rolled steel and chicken broilers.

“We've brought more trade cases against China in one term than the previous administration did in two â€" and every case we've brought that's been decided, we won,” Mr. Obama said.

Speaking of the latest case, he said, “These are subsidies that directly harm working men and women on the assembly lines in Ohio and Michigan and across the Midwest.” He added, “It's not right. It's against the rules, and we will not let it stand.”

Mr. Obama noted that Mr. Romney had warned that the tire case would be bad for the country and for American workers â€" a charge he made in his book “No Apologies.” Instead, the president claimed, it created more than 1,000 jobs.

Mr. Romney is training a spotlight on another type of enforcement in which he says Mr. Obama is lacking: labeling China as a currency manipulator for keeping its currency, the yuan, artificially undervalued. In his campaign ad, a narrator declares: “Seven times Obama could have stopped China's cheating. Seven times he refused.”

The Treasury Department has consistently declined to designate China for manipulation. Senior officials argue that to do so would only make matters worse, by provoking a nationalist backlash that could force the Chinese authorities to tighten their currency controls again. They note that after quiet but persistent diplomacy by American officials, China began relaxing the controls in 2010, and the currency has risen modestly against the dollar.

Mr. Ro mney, however, has declared that he would label China a manipulator on his first day in office â€" a threat that rattles many free-trade proponents, who note that the George W. Bush administration also declined to go that route. Mr. Romney also says he would be far tougher than Mr. Obama on issues like intellectual property rights.

Mr. Obama repeated his charge that Mr. Romney pioneered outsourcing at Bain Capital â€" even repeating the word “pioneer,” lest anyone miss the point. But independent fact-checking groups have taken issue with that word because it implies that Bain was ahead of the curve in outsourcing, when the trend was already well established.

Keith Bradsher contributed reporting from Hong Kong.