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.
“The Chinese have observed previous presidents come to power who have tried to modify U.S. policy toward China, such as Bill Clinton, but they have always returned to the mainstream,” Miss Glaser said.
She added that the current candidates’ approaches to China have “considerable overlap.”
Both Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama say they will press China to exert more influence on key trade partners Iran, Sudan and Burma to modify objectionable polices. They both emphasize the importance of existing alliances in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly with Australia, Japan and South Korea, in the face of increasing Chinese influence.
Wendy Sherman, a senior aide to former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and an adviser to Mr. Obama, told The Washington Times that he would maintain the forward deployment of U.S. forces in the Pacific and seek to strengthen military cooperation with Asian allies, such as Japan.
Both candidates also seek greater cooperation with China on climate change and environmental technologies.
However, Mr. Obama has used tougher language over the yawning trade deficit.
In a speech in Pittsburgh in April, he said: “All too often, China’s been competing in a way that’s tilting the playing field and is unfair to U.S. workers. It’s not just that China is … dumping goods into our market while not opening … their own markets. It’s not just that they’re violating intellectual property rights. They’re also grossly undervaluing their currency and giving their goods yet another unfair advantage.”
China’s leaders have taken note, but are not getting flustered, Miss Glaser said.
“Trade is China’s top priority and the Chinese do have some concerns about Obama’s protectionist tendencies, but I think they are relatively confident that he would not put undue pressure on China,” she said.
Yu Bin, senior research fellow for the Shanghai Association of American Studies and professor of political science at Wittenberg University in Ohio, played down Mr. Obama’s comments on trade, suggesting they were designed to lure voters.
Mr. McCain, meanwhile, has posed a potential obstacle to U.S.-China relations in the form of his “League of Democracies” proposal, which he outlined in a speech to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council in March.
“It can harness the vast influence of the more than 100 democratic nations around the world to advance our values and defend our shared interests,” Mr. McCain said.
China, which would be excluded from such a coalition, would see the proposal as a U.S. attempt at “marginalizing its influence” in Asia, Mr. Wu said. However, he doesn’t think the league has legs.
“I don’t think this idea will go too far,” he said. “China’s influence in Asia is a reality. You can’t get business done in the Asia-Pacific region without China.”
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