- The Washington Times - Friday, October 24, 2008

‘08 ISSUES:

BEIJING | The U.S. presidential race traditionally has been a time for tough talk on China, and a period of unease for the Chinese leadership as it waits to see whether words become actions.

On the campaign trail in 1980, Ronald Reagan called for re-establishing an “official governmental relationship” with Taiwan just a year after the U.S. had switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei.

Candidate Bill Clinton promised in 1992 to put human rights before trade when dealing with the “butchers of Beijing.” George W. Bush took office in 2001 after pledging to treat China as a “strategic competitor.”

This time around, the China issue has taken a back seat. That reflects both the stable nature of U.S.-China relations and the country’s growing role in the world economy, a feeling reinforced by the current financial crisis.

“The Chinese are quite confident that the U.S. need for cooperation with China will remain strong, and probably increase,” no matter who is the next president, said Bonnie Glaser, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In a clear sign of Beijing’s importance, the Bush administration has invited China to attend a summit of 20 nations in Washington on Nov. 15 to discuss the financial crisis.

In addition, Beijing this week is hosting a summit of 16 Asian countries and the 27-member European Union.

“It’s very simple,” European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told reporters here Thursday. “We sink together or we swim together.”

China’s low profile in the campaign between Barack Obama and John McCain reflects the stability of relations, which have been curving upward since 2001, said Wu Xinbo, deputy director for the Center of American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.

“The relationship is stable and quite cooperative in many ways,” Mr. Wu said. “It’s not perfect … but compared with the start of the Bush administration, relations have progressed beyond expectations.”

Tensions peaked in April 2001, when a U.S. spy plane flying over the South China Sea collided in midair with a Chinese fighter jet, killing its pilot.

Although the incident was resolved by a U.S. apology, distrust continued to rise until the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks diverted American attention to the “war on terror” for which President Bush sought Chinese support.

U.S. presidents have a track record of softening approaches toward China once in office.

President Reagan ended up agreeing to limit U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, which China viewed as a breakaway territory. President Clinton backed down on trade sanctions, and Mr. Bush muted talk about competition.

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