China Plays Modest Role In U.S. Presidential Race

Barack Obama

hide captionBarack Obama has commented on U.S. economic and diplomatic relations with China.

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McCain, Obama On China

The candidates have said little so far about China's rising influence, but both welcome good relations with the country. Neither candidate has focused on China's rapid militarization or trade gap. Here's a sampling of their opinions on China:

McCain: He has publicly called for the release of Tibetan prisoners and genuine autonomy for Tibet. McCain has also said good relations are welcome between the U.S. and China, but the suppression of rights there must be addressed.

Obama: China's tremendous growth provides opportunities for prosperity and cooperation, he says, and deeper and more serious diplomacy is needed. Obama wants to establish a regional framework to support transnational threats.

American foreign policy has figured prominently in this year's presidential race, but one of the most important foreign policy issues — the rise of China — has not.

China has elicited little comment from either John McCain or Barack Obama.

Even now, with President Bush headed to attend the Olympic Games in Beijing, neither candidate has had much to say on China.

Of the two candidates, McCain has been the more vocal on China. Last month, when the Dalai Lama visited the U.S., McCain met with the Tibetan spiritual leader, who supports his homeland's autonomy from China. Chinese leaders have accused the Dalai Lama of inciting widespread protests in Tibet in March.

"I urge the Chinese government to release Tibetan political prisoners, account for Tibetans who have 'disappeared' since the protests in March and engage in meaningful dialogue and genuine autonomy for Tibet," McCain said during his meeting with the Dalai Lama in Aspen, Colo.

McCain also took the opportunity to criticize China's leadership for its poor record on human rights.

"The United States welcomes good relations with China," McCain said. "But it does no service to the Chinese government, and certainly no service to the people of China, for the United States and other democracies to pretend that the suppression of rights in China does not concern us. It does, will and must concern us."

Barack Obama has not been as outspoken on this issue as McCain. Last spring, Obama included some remarks on China in a speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, but they were more focused on economic and diplomatic aspects of the U.S. relationship with China.

"The emergence of an economically vibrant, more politically active China offers new opportunities for prosperity and cooperation," Obama said. "But it also poses new challenges."

Obama emphasized his desire for deeper and more serious diplomacy in the American approach to China.

"As president, I intend to forge a more effective regional framework in Asia that will promote stability, prosperity and help us confront common transnational threats, such as tracking down terrorists and responding to global health problems like avian flu," Obama said.

Both candidates have shied away from focusing on the bigger issues: China's enormous trade gap with the U.S. and the rapid modernization of China's military, including its missile and submarine forces.

Many on the right side of the political spectrum have raised alarm bells about its military modernization, and some of them work for McCain's campaign.

McCain himself has said armed conflict with China is unthinkable, and China will emerge as a superpower peacefully.

His top foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheuneman, says McCain does not believe the U.S. and China are destined to be adversaries.

But, Scheunemann said, "there are elements of Chinese behavior which are very troubling. [McCain] has pointed specifically to their military buildup. They appear to be gaining, for example, maritime capabilities that ... in certain situations could complicate the operating ability of the U.S. Navy. They have more than a thousand ballistic missiles pointed at Taiwan. They are engaged in very large spending across their defense spectrum."

There are also advisers in Obama's camp who express their concerns about China more candidly than the candidate does.

Susan Rice, his chief foreign policy adviser, says China requires a careful and sophisticated approach.

"We need to watch with interest, and perhaps increasingly with concern, its military program," Rice said. "But we can't assume that that inevitably foreshadows military confrontation with China. You could create a self-fulfilling prophecy there, which would be unnecessary and antithetical to our national security interests."

Even though China has not been a central issue in this campaign, it does have a way of forcing itself to the top of an elected president's agenda.

At first, President George W. Bush and his advisers viewed China suspiciously as a strategic competitor. Since then, he has met with Chinese presidents 14 times. This will be the president's fourth trip to China, more than any other American president.

Whichever candidate succeeds him will be faced with the same pressing economic, diplomatic and military agenda with China.

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