The Obama administration on Monday filed a complaint against China with the World Trade Organization, escalating a campaign debate between the president and Republican challenger Mitt Romney in which each is trying to appear more muscular in relations with the Asian power.
The case brought by the office of the US trade representative accuses China of illegally subsidizing exports in its automobile and auto parts industries, putting US companies at a competitive disadvantage. US auto parts jobs fell by roughly half between 2001 and 2010, according to the Obama administration, while Chinese imports have increased sevenfold.
The complaint follows another filed in July accusing China of levying unfair tariffs on $3 billion in exports of American-produced automobiles.
Romney quickly characterized the most recent move as gimmick. “Campaign-season trade cases may sound good on the stump, but it is too little, too late for American businesses and middle-class families,” Romney said in a statement. “President Obama’s credibility on this issue has long since vanished. 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.”
In a conference call with reporters, Romney adviser Ed Gillespie pointed out that the Obama administration’s action came only days after the Romney campaign launched an ad criticizing the president’s record on China. The ad noted that the United States has lost 582,000 manufacturing jobs since Obama took office and that China has increased its share of the global manufacturing market. The ad also alluded to the Obama administration’s decision on seven straight Treasury Department reports to Congress not to label China a currency manipulator.
Obama pushed back while campaigning in Ohio, where 850,000 jobs are linked to the auto industry, according to White House estimates. He heralded the new WTO filing as an example of his commitment to US workers and said Romney’s business record shows he lacks the same commitment. “You can’t stand up to China when all you’ve done is send them our jobs,” Obama said.
When Romney was chief executive of Bain Capital, the company invested millions in one Chinese manufacturer of household appliances. Global Tech, a Bain Capital affiliate led by Romney, acquired a 6 percent stake in another Chinese appliance maker. A French appliance manufacturer sued Global Tech in 1998 and won $2.65 million for patent infringement, the sort of intellectual property theft Romney has decried on the campaign trail.
And Romney’s current financial holdings include at least $500,000 in a Bain Capital fund that has invested in a Chinese electronics company being sued by Microsoft Corp. for allegedly pirating its software.
In response to a Globe report Saturday on Romney’s Chinese investments, local union leaders held a press conference outside the North End headquarters of the Romney campaign on Monday.
Veronica Turner, executive vice president of 1199 SEIU, a union of health care workers, pointed out that the nation has recovered about half a million manufacturing jobs since January 2010, suggesting Obama has reversed the downward trend he inherited a year earlier.