When Chinese President Xi Jinping talked with President Barack Obama this weekend, it brought back memories of last fall's presidential campaign.
Remember the contentious prime-time debates? The endless attack ads? What I remember, as a voice for U.S. manufacturing, was a declaration from Obama at a campaign rally in the Midwest:
"These are subsidies that directly harm working men and women on the assembly lines in Ohio and Michigan and across the Midwest. We are going to stop it. It is not right, it is against the rules, and we will not let it stand."
What was the president referring to?
Obama was talking about his administration's announcement that it had requested consultations at the World Trade Organization on China's subsidies for its exports of autos and auto parts.
The president's pledge was welcomed by America's auto parts suppliers and the roughly 1.6 million workers they employ.
Now that we're in Obama's second term, however, some VIPs in Washington chalk up the rhetoric to a heat-of-the-moment electoral battle. You can almost hear the pundits saying: "It was election season, man! We all said crazy things."
Was the president's promise crowd-pleasing? Sure.
But it was also justified. Independent analysis suggests that Beijing has dumped more than $30 billion into its auto parts sector in an effort to artificially increase market share.
This is not just a cause for worry in the Motor City and Michigan. In Illinois, the auto parts sector provides more than 36,000 jobs. Counting jobs supported indirectly, close to 2 percent of Illinois jobs are connected to auto parts, according to a Center for Automotive Research study.
Companies like Jernberg, which has plants on the South Side and in Bolingbroook, JD Norman Industries in Addison, Armacell in South Holland, and Navistar in Lisle all supply parts for the auto industry.
Obama's announcement in the fall was a welcome development, but the problem has grown worse. Auto parts imports from China surged nearly 50 percent in 2012 from 2010 levels, according to U.S. International Trade Commission data.
Unfortunately, the administration has been virtually silent on the WTO action since the election. Meanwhile, China still flouts the rules, and manufacturers in the American heartland feel the pressure.
And that's not all. China is manipulating its currency, which acts as both a subsidy on its manufacturing exports and a tax on the American-made goods we're trying to sell there.
Action is needed, and Obama must do more than just talk to China's president.
His administration must pursue its case against Beijing's auto parts subsidies by ensuring that the WTO follows all dispute settlement procedures. The administration should also launch new cases based on other auto parts subsidies.
Obama must also take on currency manipulation and deliver an ultimatum to Beijing: Do you want access to the largest and freest market in the world? Then stop your manipulation or my administration will officially designate you as a currency manipulator and follow up by limiting access to America's market.
In the heat of last fall's campaign, Obama pledged to create 1 million new manufacturing jobs. But we can't get there until we get serious about fixing the way our country approaches trade. And we certainly can't get there if we allow our trading partners to prey on America's auto parts sector. Losing it would be a huge blow to the U.S. economy, which is why the president must stick to his commitments.
The president made an important campaign pledge. Now it's time for him to follow through.
Scott Paul is president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun