Chest thumping on China gives insight into GOP candidates

Mitt Romney should “get a grip” in considering how punitive the United States should be in responding to China’s often unfair (but enormously successful) industrial policy. So said former US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky after speaking to a crowd of more than 700 executives and professionals at The Boston Club’s Corporate Salute on Thursday.

Barshefsky, Ambassador in the Clinton Administration, had been asked about a debate discussion between Jon Huntsman and Romney about how the United States should deal with the powerful and growing Chinese economic threat. Romney had been defiant, wanting, in effect, to slap them around, and Huntsman took a more nuanced position born of information and experience as U. S. Ambassador to China

Barshefy said Romney should take a lesson from our experience with Cuba. She noted that, despite a harsh embargo against Cuba, Fidel Castro has outlasted 11 U.S. Presidents, none of whom was able to bend Cuba to our free-market brand of democracy. “Who does he (Romney) think he is,” she posed, adding that Huntsman’s approach to working with China was the better way to go. The other GOP candidates are closer to Romney and it appears Huntsman is now a dead man walking.

The Boston Club, which identifies a pool of top female talent for corporate leadership positions, holds the annual event was to honor Massachusetts-based corporations with two or more women directors. There are still 41 of the largest 100 companies in the Commonwealth with no women on their boards. Twenty-nine companies have neither a woman director nor a woman executive officer, despite growing evidence that board diversity adds measurably to a company’s bottom line and shareholder value. [ Full disclosure: I’ve been a longtime member of the Club’s Corporate Board Committee.]

Barshefsky’s focus was on the accelerated pace of global growth and the tenfold increase in global companies over the last 50 years, with large developed nations and poor, small ones “playing in the same sandbox.” Twelve rounds of trade talks have brought down many barriers to access, and all are feeling the pressures of intense competition. But, as I watch the candidates, I keep seeing posturing and cliches from the candidates, not a clear-eyed facing up to the today’s global economic realities.

China has become increasingly muscular. Japan now trades more with China than with the United States. So, too, do the other Asian nations and even Brazil. China, which has amassed $3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves and is aggressive in natural resource acquisition around the world, is virtually setting the global agenda.

At the same time, the economies of the United States, Europe and Japan have declined, are less able to withstand financial shocks, and are burdened with high unemployment, slow growth and the need for austerity measures. Just look to what’s happening with the Euro and Eurozone countries. There’s also a slow movement afoot to move away from the dollar to a basketful of currencies in international trade. The change may not happen in our lifetime, but it’s unsettlingly to those who assert American exceptionalism .

Barshevsky criticized leaders here and abroad who are limited by a win-lose mentality, and, troubled by domestic political strains, tend to blame China.

“It’s not too late to get our act together, to reassert our pre-eminence” she said. The answer, she later explained, lies not in a Romney-like bullying approach to China but in strengthening ourselves on the home front, ending the paralysis in Washington, grappling with our deficit and investing in things like education, to make ourselves stronger and reinforce our ability to compete.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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