President Obama announced the filing of a new World Trade Organization case by the U.S. against China amid a wave of recent criticism by Republicans over the administration's toughness toward the Chinese government.
Obama, in remarks late this morning in the Rose Garden, flexed the muscles of his bully pulpit, and said the U.S. had lodged a WTO complaint against China related to its restrictions on rare earth mineral exports. He also pointedly criticized the continued manipulation of currency by the Chinese, which critics say results in an unfair trade balance.
"If China would simply let the market work on its own we would have no objections but their policies currently are preventing that from happening," Obama said, adding that the minerals, of which China has a near-monopoly, are crucial to some industries the administration is trying to promote, like hybrid cars and advanced batteries.
Obama's announcement comes as Republicans routinely hit Obama on the campaign trail for being weak on China as an unfair trade partner
Mitt Romney, for example, frequently criticizes the president for not doing more to stop China from keeping its currency artificially low, as he did at a stop in Ohio in late February.
"This president talks about it and hasn't done anything," Romney said. "If I'm president of the United States, I will declare China a currency manipulator and apply tariffs if necessary where they are cheating and taking away our jobs."
While the United States has reportedly been contemplating a formal challenge to China's rare earth restrictions for at least a year, reporters on a conference call with senior administration officials Tuesday questioned why the announcement was happening at this particular time, when prices of rare earth minerals are in fact relatively low.
The officials dismissed the notion that Tuesday's announcement resulted from political motivations, and argued that China could at any time threaten to halt supply of the minerals as it did temporarily to Japan in 2010.
"The fact that the price may fluctuate a bit does not take away the risk to our economy," the administration official said. "The time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining."