Where the candidates stand on China

@CNNMoney February 14, 2012: 11:15 AM ET

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- The man who's likely to be China's next leader will tour the United States this week, just as the campaign rhetoric is heating up on China.

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping is scheduled to meet with President Obama Tuesday, and visit Iowa and California in coming days. Since Xi is presumed to be the next leader of China, the visit could set the stage for U.S.-China relations in coming years.

Amid the election season, tensions have risen, and there's a lot of disagreement in Washington about how to handle the relationship.

For the most part, both Democrats and Republicans want to level the playing field for American companies competing with Chinese businesses for international trade.

But most also want the Chinese to continue investing in the United States, and they want American companies to gain freer access to China's growing middle-class consumers.

How do you balance both goals? No one seems to have a good answer.

Obama's tough talk on China

President Obama has recently taken his toughest stance on China since entering office. In November, he urged China to start acting more like a "grown up," in observing international trade laws.

In his State of the Union last month, he picked on China again when he launched a Trade Enforcement Unit to investigate counterfeit goods and unfair restrictions on American companies that want to enter foreign markets.

China currently requires foreign companies to create a joint venture with a Chinese counterpart, in order to do business there. Such a venture often requires sharing trade secrets.

Obama is pushing the Chinese government to protect American companies' intellectual property. Even the Chinese government has acknowledged stealing and counterfeiting goods are a problem, but valid doubts surround whether it has the political will to enforce regulations.

Our love-hate relationship with China

"It happens to be the case that in all developing countries, in the early stages of development, they don't pay attention to intellectual property," said Dwight Perkins, professor of economics at Harvard University. "They can't afford to pay for it, so they steal movies, software and so on."

Obama has also taken issue with China's currency, which he says is undervalued, giving Chinese manufacturers an unfair advantage by making their products artificially cheaper in the international marketplace.

While Obama has talked about China's undervalued currency though, his administration has fallen short of labeling the country a "currency manipulator" -- an official designation that could trigger severe tariffs on Chinese imports.

That's where Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney stands apart from all the other candidates.

Romney talks tougher

Romney says he's not afraid to call China out. On day one of the job, he vows to label China a currency manipulator. He also says he would pursue legal action against China, through the World Trade Organization.

Will he actually follow through?

"I'd suspect he wouldn't go there," said Damien Ma, analyst with the Eurasia Group. "Like most presidential campaigns, the red meat rhetoric tends to be reshaped by reality once they get into office."

Some critics warn that labeling China a currency manipulator could risk triggering a trade war. China could retaliate by launching tariffs of its own.

"It would probably do more harm to the U.S. than good," Perkins said.

Others argue, the U.S. shouldn't point fingers on currency issues while the Federal Reserve is in the process of easing monetary policy -- a policy that China says artificially devalues the dollar.

Romney doesn't seem too worried about damaging the fragile relationship between the two nations. He thinks it's already troubled.

"People say, 'well, you'll start a trade war,'" Romney said in a recent debate. "There's one going on right now, folks. They're stealing our jobs and we're going to stand up to China."

Gingrich, Santorum and Paul: The muddled middle

Newt Gingrich has said he wants to "dramatically raise the pain level for the Chinese cheating," but he hasn't specified how exactly he plans to do it. "I don't think anybody today has a particularly good strategy for doing that," he admitted.

Both he and Rick Santorum have focused their talking points more on lowering corporate taxes to American companies to keep jobs in the U.S.

In a debate last month, CNN's John King asked the candidates how they would persuade Apple (AAPL, Fortune 500) to bring some of its manufacturing jobs home to the U.S.

"Apple, you have all those employees over there, you make all those profits over there. If you want to bring that money back, right now you pay a 35% tax," Santorum said. "Under our plan, if you bring it back and invest it in plant and equipment here in Charleston -- you pay nothing."

Meanwhile, Ron Paul wants to stop picking on China altogether.

"We should look to ourselves, our polices have made it difficult for us to compete and we can't go looking for scapegoats. We can't blame China," he said on CNN last year.  To top of page

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