Scott Walker talks tough on China after courting Beijing as governor

Scott Walker warms to New Hampshire
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Story highlights

  • Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has been taking a harder line on China recently
  • But as governor he worked hard to build trade relationships with the superpower

Washington (CNN)Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is expected to play up his recent hardline stance on China in a major foreign policy address Friday -- but during his time in Madison he has sung a very different tune on the Asian power.

His speech, to be delivered at The Citadel in South Carolina, comes on the heels of his call Monday for President Barack Obama to cancel his September state dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
At the same time, he took China to task for "massive cyberattacks," its South China Sea military buildup and "persistent persecution" of human rights activists. And at a New Hampshire house party last week, Walker floated military action as a "last resort" for answering Chinese aggressions.
    The comments caused some to question whether Walker was trying to outdo party front-runner Donald Trump's combative language against China, who himself has railed against Beijing as the country's falling stock market roils U.S. exchanges and amid accusations of widespread Chinese hacking into sensitive government files.
    The China comments represent a new line of hawkish foreign policy from Walker, who has, out on the stump, said he would lead like Ronald Reagan -- amping up defense spending but not committing troops to war unless absolutely necessary. But they differ significantly from his record of dealing with China as a governor.
    Since assuming office nearly five years ago, Walker has built a close relationship with China as he's looked to bolster business ties with the superpower. In contrast to his suggestion that Obama cancel the state dinner for Xi, he sought an in-person meeting with the Chinese president in 2013.
    Back then, Walker pressed Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad to include him on a trade mission to China so he could personally meet Xi, according to an aide who helped coordinate the trip. The aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private talks, said that Walker was eager to meet the Chinese president face to face.
    At the same time as the trip, Walker touted the opening of the Wisconsin Center China -- an offshoot of the state's private economic development agency -- to help Wisconsin businesses tap into the Chinese market.
    "Through the years, Wisconsin has built a strong trade relationship with China, and the opening of the Wisconsin Center China will help Wisconsin businesses continue to strengthen our trade relationships and grow export opportunities," Walker said back then.
    Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, the state's private economic development arm, is leading a delegation to China in January and promoting a larger, regional trade mission in May.
    As governor, Walker has also been a major supporter of the federal EB-5 visa program, which grants a special EB-5 visa to anyone who invests at least $500,000 in a U.S. business. A 2012 blog post from Walker's economic development team urged high-dollar Chinese investors to put their money in his state.
    And, in the midst of the 2012 White House race, Walker came to the defense of China.
    "There's a strong cultural bond there, there's a good tradition there, and it's one where that trust has been built, not just in the last few years, but over time," Walker said on China's state-run TV, in a clip posted by liberal Wisconsin blogger Jud Lounsbury.
    Walker spokeswoman AshLee Strong said a lot has changed between the United States and China in the two years since Walker met with Xi. She also said the United States should be able to continue trading with China while taking a tougher stance on the country.
    "Holding China accountable for its egregious actions doesn't negate the importance of trade. Rather than high honors and unnecessary ceremony for President Xi, President Obama should be focused on real engagement," Strong said Tuesday.
    Walker fielded a question about China during a house party hosted by New Hampshire co-chair Chris Wolfe last week.
    Last week at a New Hampshire house party, he articulated that new, tougher line when asked, "What would you do as president to prepare for something that might end up in hostilities?"
    "There are many ways to push back on this," Walker responded. "The last resort is a military standpoint, which certainly should be a last resort, but there are diplomatic and economic ways to deal with this."
    Democrats panned Walker's shifting stances on China this week in email blasts, saying that his hardline position ignores the importance of Midwest trade -- largely in soybeans -- with the superpower and raises questions about his ability to represent key agricultural interests.
    "In one reckless statement on China, Scott Walker demonstrated he doesn't understand Iowa's agriculture industry, trade policy, or foreign policy," Iowa state Rep. Bruce Bearinger said in a statement blasted out by the Democratic Party.
    But some conservatives in the Washington think tank world have been supportive of Walker's recent rhetoric on China and the policy he's laying out, maintaining that there's no contradiction in his stances.
    Mike Mazza, a foreign policy research fellow at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, said it's not impossible to want to continue a strong business relationship with China while seeking the cancellation of a state dinner, saying there needs to be a balance between cooperation and competition.
    "Canceling the state dinner sends a very clear signal that we take these things very seriously," Mazza said. "To date, China has paid no costs for any of that. There has been no payment for any of that behavior."