By Jeff Mason and Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama's campaign sparred on Thursday over whether the White House is too weak on China, a hot topic that is gaining prominence ahead of November's U.S. election.
In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, Romney accused Obama of "almost begging" Beijing to buy U.S. debt. His comments were timed to coincide with the visit of China's leader-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, who held talks with Obama at the White House this week.
Obama's re-election team in Chicago shot back swiftly at Romney, accusing him of changing positions on China for political gain.
U.S. voters are concerned about the loss of manufacturing jobs in states such as Ohio, an electoral battleground in the presidential election.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who faces a growing threat from former Senator Rick Santorum in the race for the Republican nomination to challenge Obama in November, called Xi's meetings with U.S. leaders "empty pomp and ceremony."
"President Obama came into office as a near supplicant to Beijing, almost begging it to continue buying American debt so as to finance his profligate spending here at home," Romney wrote in the opinion piece.
Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Romney's attack during a foreign leader's visit was unusual but not unexpected.
"I just can't recall there being such a targeted attack on a president's China policy during a leader's visit," she said. "It probably doesn't surprise (China's leaders), although they're not happy to see it."
Zeroing in on one topic that galls American voters about China, Romney said Obama was not forceful in pressing Beijing over human rights.
"His administration demurred from raising issues of human rights for fear it would compromise agreement on the global economic crisis or even 'the global climate-change crisis.' Such weakness has only encouraged Chinese assertiveness and made our allies question our staying power in East Asia," Romney wrote.
Obama met with Xi, China's current vice president, in the White House Oval Office on Tuesday, raising China's human rights record and encouraging Beijing to play by global economic rules.
Beating up on China is an easy way for candidates to score political points, and Obama's campaign, which was expecting Romney's attack, called him a flip-flopper - a charge both Democrats and Romney's Republican rivals have sought to exploit in the former governor's policy resume.
"Today's tough talk on China stands in stark opposition to his position two years ago, when Romney called the president's decision to enforce trade laws against China 'bad for the nation and our workers,'" said Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt, quoting from Romney's book, "No Apology."
LaBolt also cited a Wall Street Journal report that said Romney's financial advisers sold some $1.5 million in investments in China last year.
"He was comfortable investing 1.5 million of his own money in China rather than America until he decided it was bad for his politics. A Commander-in-Chief only gets one chance to get it right," LaBolt said.
TOUGH TALK ON BOTH SIDES
Romney says if he were president he would push China to change its trade practices by designating it a currency manipulator - something the Obama administration has declined to do. He repeated that promise at a campaign event in an affluent suburb outside Detroit on Thursday.
"If I'm president of the United States, I will finally take China to the carpet and say, 'Look you guys, I'm gonna label you a currency manipulator and apply tariffs unless you stop those practices,'" he said.
Obama is also frustrated with Chinese economic practices.
He continued his own tough talk on Wednesday, chiding foreign competitors such as China for not playing "by the same rules" at a campaign-style visit at Master Lock's Milwaukee factory and highlighting his creation of a Trade Enforcement Unit to investigate unfair trade practices in China and other countries.
Obama has sharpened his rhetoric against China in recent months, a move analysts says is positioned partly as a buffer to Republican criticism.
Daniel Twining, a former adviser to Republican Senator John McCain and Asia expert at the German Marshall Fund, said Romney's views were not out of line with the U.S. electorate.
"There's a lot of sympathy out in the country for ... this criticism of China that it doesn't play by the rules," he said. "Governor Romney is not out of step with this."
A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found 52 percent of Americans had an unfavorable impression of China, while 37 percent viewed it favorably.
Romney called for reversing defense cuts and maintaining a strong military presence in the Pacific to balance "the long-term challenge posed by China's build-up."
"This is not an invitation to conflict. Instead, this policy is a guarantee that the region remains open for cooperative trade, and that economic opportunity and democratic freedom continue to flourish across East Asia," he wrote.
On the issue of human rights, Romney wrote, "We must also forthrightly confront the fact that the Chinese government continues to deny its people basic political freedoms and human rights."
(Additional reporting by Sam Youngman; Editing by Peter Cooney)