SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Mitt Romney, in his first speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, joined growing hostile rhetoric in Washington against China by calling the Asian nation not only an economic foe but a growing military threat that must be tamed by alliances with "other free nations."
The freshman Republican from Utah said China's economic strength and large population enable a military might that "could eclipse our own.
"It is possible that freedom itself would be in jeopardy," Romney warned in remarks. "If we fail to act now, that possibility may become reality."
He said he supports the tariffs President Donald Trump's administration has slapped on Chinese goods, but also criticized the government's response to China as "ad hoc, short term or piecemeal."
"It is past time for us to construct a comprehensive strategy to meet the challenge of an ambitious and increasingly hostile China," Romney said in a speech that sided with Trump in many respects and called him out in others.
Romney's remarks come amid a trade war between the United States and China. The tense dispute has resulted in rising tariffs and each side blaming the other for a breakdown in negotiations after 11 rounds of talks over trade and technology issues.
For its part, China softened its tone Tuesday in a post from the country's commerce ministry that said the “differences and frictions between the two sides” should be dealt with through talks "based on mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit,” CNBC reported.
Fellow GOP freshman Sen. Rick Scott, of Florida, presided over the chamber during Romney's first speech since he was sworn into office in January. Senators are allowed time to speak on any topic during certain times of the day, sometimes to a largely empty chamber. Among the senators attending Romney's speech were Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D.; Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.; and Utah's senior Sen. Mike Lee.
Romney acknowledged his Senate colleagues across the board for their warm welcome, which, he admitted, surprised him.
"Given the public passions of our politics these days, I had also presumed that the atmosphere here would vary between prickly and hostile," he said. "But the truth is that senators on both sides of the aisle are remarkably friendly and collegial, once the cameras are turned off."
Romney recalled identifying Russia as the nation's top geopolitical foe during his 2012 presidential campaign. He said Tuesday that while Russia is an ongoing threat, it is a nation in decline while China is on the rise, doing so through currency manipulation, theft of competing technologies and otherwise breaking global trade rules.
"I’m a free trade, free market guy, but free markets require rules to enforce honest competition," Romney said. "Slavishly accepting China’s cheating as a dynamic of free market competition makes no sense."
He agreed with the U.S. policy of using tariffs to crack down on theft of intellectual property, but he called for a more direct response to China’s "predatory industrial policy," warning that otherwise it will not end.
Romney also accused China of artificially holding down the value of its currency to make its goods less expensive. But he said China's "weapon of choice" is subsidizing its domestic industries, which removes the the constraints of profitability, return on capital and repayment of debt that its competitors face.
"They can employ predatory pricing, entering a foreign market by pricing a product well below its cost, driving domestic competitors out of business," Romney said. "When an American company does this, it is prosecuted under antitrust law. Proving a Chinese product is priced below cost is extremely difficult given the lack of reliable cost data."
But Romney, a multimillionaire who ran a successful consulting firm that turned around troubled businesses, said there are tools the U. S. and its allies can use to thwart a "predatory competitor" poised to become a geopolitical powerhouse.
He said a mix of traditional remedies — domestic subsidies, banning products from a predatory country and enforcing strict international trade rules — are needed.
"Joining the other nations of the world in genuinely fair and free trade and in respect for the sovereignty of its trading partners and neighbors is very much in China’s, America’s and the world’s interest," Romney said. "China is not yet a geopolitical foe, but its actions over the last several years have brought it right up to the line of being so."
America must strengthen its alliances with other nations, said Romney, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in what could be taken as a criticism of Trump's past resentful remarks over NATO and his current threat to raise tariffs on Mexican goods.
"We should strengthen our alliances, not dismiss or begrudge them. We should enhance our trade with allies, not disrupt it, and coordinate all the more closely our security and defense," he said. "We need to hold our friends closer, not neglect them or drive them away. These alliances are a key advantage we have over China: America has many friends, China has very few."
Romney said America should reassert its role as a global leader in technology by welcoming the world's "best and brightest" to study and set up shop in the United States.
"Over half of the 25 most valuable high-tech companies in the U.S. were founded by immigrants or their children," he said. "It is very much in our national interest to keep attracting the world’s best minds to America."
Another domestic challenge to solve is the federal government's rising debt, which will compromise the nation's ability to spend enough on military defenses against China and other nations, Romney said.
Over the weekend, U.S. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan denounced China's efforts to steal technology from other nations and place advanced weapons systems on disputed man-made outposts in the South China Sea as a "toolkit of coercion," The Associated Press reported.
Romney closed his remarks by calling on the nation to be unified in its response to China. He called out the use of social media to "prey on the human tendency to diminish the dignity and worth of people with different views, of different races, religions or colors."
In returning to his frequent criticism of what he sees as Trump's divisive online discourse, Romney said "when it comes to cooling the rhetoric and encouraging unity, there is no more powerful medium than the bully pulpit of the president of the United States."
"National unity demands that the voices of leaders draw upon the better angels of our nature," Romney said. "They must call upon the distinctive qualities of our national character evidenced time and again in American history."