WASHINGTON — While U.S. presidential candidates talk tough about what they see as China's unfair trade policies, one fact gets little notice: Chinese companies are investing more than ever in the U.S. and supporting thousands of American jobs.
With two separate billion-dollar deals in a struggling chain of movie theaters and in shale oil and gas, as well as other major ventures in the works, investment from China is set to hit record levels in 2012. Its cash-rich companies have expanded their presence here in the past three years, eager to tap the lucrative American market and U.S. know-how.
The jobs created don't offset what American politicians and some economists see as the millions of jobs lost because of China's currency policies and the theft of intellectual property. Also, Chinese investment, especially in telecommunications and other sensitive businesses, isn't always welcome.
But the growth in investment underscores how the relationship between the U.S. and China is more complicated than depicted on the campaign trail. Cheap Chinese products have benefited American consumers, and China's massive purchases of Treasury securities have helped finance the U.S. budget deficit. And while Chinese investment in the U.S. is barely off the starting blocks given the size of its economy, some believe it could become a major source for American jobs.
"There's a huge amount of ignorance in the U.S. marketplace of how to take advantage of potential Chinese investment," said Larry Morrissey, independent mayor of Rockford, Ill., a city of 150,000 that hosts three major Chinese companies. While money is tight in the U.S., he said, Chinese firms want to invest and have the funds to do it.
But in the presidential campaign, China seems to attract only negative attention.
"They steal our intellectual property rights. They block access to their markets. They manipulate their currency," Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan told supporters in Ohio last week. He accused President Barack Obama of allowing China to treat him like a "doormat" and vowed Mitt Romney would crack down on China cheating.
Obama, who has sought deeper ties with China, says his administration has nevertheless stepped up trade complaints and announced one in response to Chinese tariffs on U.S. auto exports during a campaign trip to Ohio in July.
But both the administration and the Republican-supporting U.S. Chamber of Commerce are actively seeking Chinese investment. They want to capitalize on the ambitions of state-owned and private Chinese companies to expand from the developing world to developed countries.
The private Rhodium Group, which closely tracks Chinese foreign direct investment, puts the total attracted to the U.S. since 2000 at $20.9 billion. It predicts that Chinese companies could invest between $1 trillion and $2 trillion internationally by 2020 and a significant chunk of that investment could come to the U.S.
While China is still far from emulating the outward expansion of Japanese companies into the United States the 1980s, the Japanese experience could be a formative example. Fears then that the U.S. economy might be dominated by Japan proved unfounded. Today, Japanese-affiliated companies employ about 700,000 Americans.