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President Obama's national security advisor visited China this week, just as Mitt Romney was attacking the administration's approach to China. It is the world's largest economy after the United States, and the relationship with China is one of the most important and complicated the U.S. has. So how might a Romney administration deal differently with China? Here's NPR's Ari Shapiro.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The U.S. relationship with China has always been a tug of war between cooperation and competition.
DAVID SHAMBAUGH: What I call coopetition.
SHAPIRO: David Shambaugh runs George Washington University's China Policy Program.
SHAMBAUGH: It's a normal part of a relationship between the world's major power and the second major power. There's intrinsically a competitive dynamic there, strategically, militarily, economically, particularly as long as the other power is not a democracy.
SHAPIRO: That's the competition part of the relationship. Then there's the cooperation part.
ERIN ENNIS: It is one of our fastest-growing export markets.
SHAPIRO: Erin Ennis is vice president of the U.S.-China Business Council, a nonpartisan association of American companies that do business in China.
ENNIS: China is on target to be one of very few countries that we have doubled exports to in five years, one of the Obama administration's goals.
SHAPIRO: The key question about Mitt Romney's China policy is whether he would shift the balance between cooperation and competition. His rhetoric makes it sound like he would. This week, he spoke to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Reno.
MITT ROMNEY: The cheating must finally be brought to a stop. The president hasn't done it and won't do it, and I will.
SHAPIRO: He was even more specific in a Republican presidential debate last year.
ROMNEY: China is stealing our intellectual property - our patents, our designs, our know-how, our brand names. They're hacking into our computers, stealing information from not only corporate computers, but from government computers. And they're manipulating their currency.
SHAPIRO: Romney says he'll label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office, though it's not clear he could make that official declaration on his first day, since it needs to come from the Treasury Department. And even then, the label does not necessarily carry dramatic consequences. Romney's aggressive language upholds a long American tradition, says Christopher Johnson. He's a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and he's worked for presidents of both parties.
CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: There have been many presidents who came into office toting a pretty hard line, you know, toward the Chinese, and then, once arriving in office, they realize that it was perhaps a more complicated situation.
SHAPIRO: Chinese leaders know this. They're used to it. And by now, everyone largely ignores the campaign rhetoric, says Ennis of the U.S.-China Business Council.
ENNIS: My gut is that we wouldn't see any significant changes from what every administration since Richard Nixon has done, Democrat or Republican.
SHAPIRO: At least that's her hope. She and others in the business community fear that a dramatic lurch in U.S.-China policy could hurt the American economy. If the campaign rhetoric does become reality, Johnson of CSIS says it could have a ripple effect around the region.
JOHNSON: It becomes a concern if you're a Southeast Asian country or any other regional country, that you have to make a choice between the U.S. and China. This is always what they don't want to do. They want to avoid this, and they're very explicit about this. I mean, they say this publicly as well.
SHAPIRO: Romney's get-tough policies on China also include some steps that the Obama administration has taken already. Shambaugh of George Washington University did a close reading of the Romney campaign website's section on China.
SHAMBAUGH: It is not terribly distinguishable from the Obama administration's policies towards China and East Asia.
SHAPIRO: Barack Obama and Mitt Romney both support a U.S. military buildup in the region. They both talk about supporting human rights in China. And on trade practices, President Obama told a crowd in Ohio this month that he's been no slouch.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: My administration brought trade cases against China at a faster pace than the previous administration, and we've won those cases. Just this morning, my administration took a new action to hold China accountable for unfair trade practices that harm American automakers.
SHAPIRO: During a presidential campaign, both sides can benefit from drawing sharp contrasts between the two candidates, even if the reality is that some things won't change no matter who's in charge. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.