By CNN's Adam Levine
It was a single line in a Republican debate focused mostly on domestic issues, but former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's suggestion that the U.S. borrow less from China, pull back some on humanitarian aid and push China to give more instead got the attention of the audience in the hall.
The comment came during a heated discussion about spending cuts at Tuesday's night's presidential debate in Nevada sponsored by CNN and the Western Republican Leadership Conference.
"I happen to think it doesn't make a lot of sense for us to borrow money from the Chinese to go give to another country for humanitarian aid. We ought to get the Chinese to take care of the people," Romney said to applause from the assembled crowd of western state Republicans.
Romney spokesman Ryan Williams told CNN Wednesday the candidate "was not suggesting that the United States should eliminate all spending on foreign assistance and instead leave it to other governments to engage in that activity. Rather, he was making the point about the need to prioritize what we spend our federal dollars on given the state of our federal defect."
But Williams said Romney does believe that "if programs are not effective in advancing our strategic goals, then they should be eliminated."
"Governor Romney supports targeting our scarce assistance resources in a strategic manner. The goal of assistance programs must be to enhance the security and prosperity of the United States and our allies, and the programs must be effective," Williams said in a statement e-mailed to CNN.
"This means focusing our assistance - particularly in the turbulent Middle East - on those programs that best support an international system based on free markets, representative government and human rights. And assistance programs must push back against forces that seek to destabilize that system."
Romney has a point about pushing China to do more, said Douglas Paal, Director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Asia program.
The United States should want China to be a bigger stakeholder "and do more of what we have been doing by ourselves for decades. Aid is among them," Paal said.
China has "vastly increased" its investments in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia recently, Paal noted. That spending is not necessarily aid in the way the United States does it. Instead, some see what China does as more of a transaction, like getting oil in exchange for building infrastructure.
"The recipients seem to like it - although there have been allegations of corruption on both sides of some transactions - even better than Western aid, because China imposes fewer "strings" on its aid," Paal observed.
John Norris at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress called it a "curious abdication" of U.S. leadership by Romney.
"The idea that we would tell Somali refugees pouring into Kenya, 'Sorry, we can't help. Maybe the Chinese can,'" does not line up with the American tradition of helping people in crisis, Norris said.
And humanitarian aid is not only aligned with the U.S. desire to help those in need, but also with foreign policy and national security imperatives, Norris said.
"The other part is development to help countries committed to reform and democracy," and the Chinese are not committed to that, Norris observed. Norris, like Paal, said the Chinese approach is more mercantile.
"They don't really care if a country is committed to democracy or anything else," Paal said. "The Chinese put the biggest investment in countries where they are hoping to get natural resources out of the ground."
Patrick Cronin noted that before the China comment, Romney was making a "useful distinction" between aid that supports U.S. national security interests and humanitarian and development aid.
"Foreign aid has several elements," Romney said during the debate. "One of those elements is defense, is to make sure that we are able to have the defense resources we want in certain places of the world. That probably ought to fall under the Department of Defense budget rather than a foreign aid budget."
"He was not wrong to do this," said Cronin, the senior director of the Asia program at the Center for a New American Security, "because national security interests require some foreign aid, and all other aid is far more a discretionary act of goodwill."
"Governor Romney was obviously trying to protect foreign aid from deep cuts to balance the U.S. budget, because, as he said, some of this aid is supporting the regions where we have troops on the ground," Cronin said. "He took a sensible middle ground, or at least left it implicit, that we could cut some foreign aid, but should not cut it all."
Cronin, who only read the excerpts but did not watch the debate, said he would want to hear more about what Romney had in mind regarding China.
"I think he may have meant in this impromptu sound bite, is that the United States, as the world's largest debtor nation, and China, as the world's largest creditor nation, should be redistributing some of the burden for helping others around the world," Cronin said. "Its aid might actually help with economic development and poverty alleviation rather than simply support China's mercantilist policies."
Moreover, suggested Cronin, Romney could also be suggesting that U.S. aid "should increasingly cut out the middle man for delivering assistance and flow more directly to worthy developing nations."
American Enterprise Institute's Danielle Pletka did not take Romney's proposal as a serious one. She said that Romney was arguing about how much the United States borrows from China and was not truly suggesting the nation give up its foreign aid responsibilities to China as a cost-saving measure.
"To be fair to Romney, I don't think he was actually suggesting Chinese should give humanitarian aid, he was making a rhetorical point," said Pletka, the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative think tank. "He's not a fool. He understands we are not going to subcontract our foreign policy priorities to the Chinese."
Humanitarian aid is not something the candidates are making a big issue of in the campaign "and for good reason," because the foreign policy budget pales compared to other big ticket items in the campaign, Pletka noted.
Even so, foreign aid is never going to be a winner for candidates trying to appeal to the American public, Pletka said.