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Obama Files New Trade Complaint Against China


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. We begin this hour with President Obama on the campaign trail. He was in the battleground state of Ohio today, but he spent much of his time talking about China. President Obama even announced a new trade complaint against China during a campaign stop in Cincinnati.

The White House is challenging Chinese subsidies for auto parts. Mitt Romney's campaign has been criticizing the administration for not taking tougher line against Chinese trade practices, and we'll hear more about that in a moment.

But first, NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now from Ohio. And Scott, this latest complaint, as we said, is about auto parts, and that's a big industry in Ohio, isn't it?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: It is, Audie. Some 54,000 people in Ohio work directly in the auto parts sector, 850,000 if you look more broadly at the auto industry and related fields like steel. That's about one out of eight jobs in this state. What the White House is saying is that China has been unfairly subsidizing its own auto parts makers, and that those subsidies are directly tied to parts that China makes for export.

The administration says that's illegal under WTO rules, and that China is now putting U.S. parts makers and those 54,000 Ohio employees at a competitive disadvantage.

CORNISH: Now, at the same time, the administration's turning up the heat in another trade case. What can you tell us about that?

HORSLEY: This is a complaint about the barriers that China has imposed on American-made autos. That's making it harder for General Motors and Chrysler to sell their vehicles in China. Now, China imposed tariffs on American-made cars and trucks in response to the U.S. government's rescue of the automakers. The U.S. initially took this case to the WTO 60 days ago. Now it's asking for the next formal step in the process.

And, Audie, in a remarkable coincidence, that case was first announced on another day when Mr. Obama happened to be campaigning in Ohio, near Toledo, in fact, which is home to a big Jeep assembly center.

CORNISH: Now, Mitt Romney has dismissed the president's latest enforcement action as too little, too late. And, I mean, are these the first enforcement actions the White House has taken against China?

HORSLEY: No. The White House boasted it has actually filed trade cases against China at more than twice the rate of the Bush administration. We've talked a little bit about cars and car parts. One of the first cases that the administration filed against China involved tires. That was back in 2009, when at the urging of the steel workers union, the White House went after China over a flood of cheap tire imports.

Now, interestingly, in his book, "No Apology," Mitt Romney criticized that move by the Obama administration as a protectionist sop to the labor unions. The president told supporters here in Ohio today that Romney's campaign rhetoric now, during an election year, doesn't match his past performance.


HORSLEY: And, by the way, since the U.S. brought that tire case, the domestic tire industry has seen a little bit of a rebound. There are about 1,000 more Americans making tires now than there were before that case in 2009. That's an increase of about 10 percent.

CORNISH: Now, Scott, trade is a sensitive issue the White House has to navigate with China, but it's not the only one. I mean, how much leeway does the president actually have here?

HORSLEY: Well, you're right, Audie. And, in fact, we've seen a pattern in the past where first-time candidates - including Barack Obama himself - talk tough about China on the campaign trail, and then they get in the Oval Office and discover, hey, China's helping to bankroll our debt, or China has a veto at the UN. China could be helpful to us when it comes to dealing with Iran or Syria or any number of geopolitical issues. And suddenly, the price of auto parts becomes just one little cog in a much larger machine.

CORNISH: Scott, this is sometimes talked about as being just political football. But do you have any sense of how voters actually react to this issue?

HORSLEY: Well, clearly, the Obama administration feels like this is an issue that resonates with voters here in Ohio. As I mentioned, it is a major employment center for this state - not so much in Cincinnati, where the president was campaigning first thing today, but in other parts of the state, especially up in the northern part of the state around Cleveland and around Toledo, as I mentioned. Those are the real hubs of manufacturing.

And the fact that they've chosen to announce these trade cases when the president is in this state tells you they clearly feel like there's some political points to be scored here.

CORNISH: NPR's Scott Horsley, on the road with the Obama campaign. Scott, thank you.

HORSLEY: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.