The Australian

By Marc Palen

Both Obama and Romney will fix the US economy without free trade.

Or at least that is the conclusion you might draw if you watched their last two presidential debates or viewed their recent attack ads.

Amid two presidential debates focused largely on fixing the US economy, trade expansion took a back seat to anti-China grandstanding.

In this week's debate, Barack Obama gave the tersest of nods to last year's three new trade agreements (notably leaving out the word "free") with Panama, South Korea, and Colombia. He also touted his protectionist stance against cheap Chinese tires. "We saved a thousand jobs," he bragged, "and that's the kind of tough trade actions that are required."

For his part, Mitt Romney, the anointed leader of the self-proclaimed party of laissez faire, once again promised that on "day one" he would label China a currency manipulator, yet another none too subtle threat from him of a possible trade war with China. China's state-run newspaper Xinhua has already chided Romney is "playing protectionism."

All this after Romney and Obama recently embarked upon anti-China campaigns in the American Midwest, preempted by populist attack ads from both camps over who would make a bigger outsourcer-in-chief to China.

To distance himself further from Romney's charges of Sinophilia, the Obama administration has correspondingly filed a new case before the World Trade Organisation against China for its subsidisation of car exports. And on Wednesday the US Commerce Department smacked China's largest solar manufactures with tariffs as high as 36 percent, the latest manoeuvre amid this growing Sino-American energy tariff "tit-for-tat."

Last Thursday Shen Danyang, a spokesman for Beijing's Ministry of Commerce, correspondingly charged the United States with "inciting trade friction," thereby sending a negative protectionist message to the world.

Yet we have not heard a peep from the presidential candidates in either debate concerning Asian pivots, TPP dances, or APEC pirouettes.

Instead, we have witnessed the bipartisan bete noire of China drawn out to be used once again as an all-purpose political punching bag. Despite such China bashing coming from both presidential camps, it bears mentioning that the Red Dragon's economic rise does not signal American demise. After all, the future of American manufactures yet looks bright, and a strong Chinese economy is certainly better than a weak one for global recovery.

It may be the economy, stupid, but right now you wouldn't know that global trade had a role to play — except perhaps as the villain. Apparently, when on the presidential campaign trail, any solutions for rebuilding the domestic economy must now include the condemnation of its global counterpart.

Meanwhile, a few weeks ago in Vladivostok, Russia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton quietly took her leave from the most recent meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. This 21-country meet-up coincided with the 14th round of negotiations in Leesburg, Virginia, for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a regional free trade agreement between Peru, Chile, Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and soon to include Mexico and Canada.

While the TPP has rightly come under fire for its lack of public openness, the trade agreement also promises to double US exports by late 2014 and benefit "every economy in the region," as Clinton noted at the APEC summit in Russia.

Alternatively, critics like Foreign Policy Magazine's Clyde Prestowitz are now asserting without substantiation that the TPP and other regional free trade agreements are inherently "war by other means".

Well, certainly not if China can be persuaded to join, an increasingly likely scenario as China has already signed on to eight free trade agreements, with more in the works.

Admittedly, more inclusive international free trade agreements like Doha have failed to live up to expectations. Last year, Australian Trade Minister Craig Emerson declared Doha dead, but he also warned that global protectionism was not the correct policy prescription. Instead, he looked with optimism upon a sector-by-sector regional approach to trade liberalisation.

Jump forward a year later and agreements like TPP and APEC, Emerson's prized workhorse of "regional integration," continue to show signs of vitality.

Yet it is becoming increasingly unclear where Obama and Romney come down on America's global economic future, as both presidential candidates ambiguously dangle free trade carrots and brandish protectionist sticks, and as their positions seemingly shift with the prevailing American economic nationalist winds.

While the US presidential candidates focus upon domestic economic woes, the global economy roils in turmoil. And — lest we forget — for one to recover, so must the other.

With just one presidential debate remaining, Obama and Romney need to make transparent their global trade translucence — the world is watching.

This article was originally published at The Australian