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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

With all the focus on the economy and the presidential election, foreign policy has taken a backseat. But this week, we're exploring some of the key foreign issues in the campaign. Today, China. America is deeply in debt to China, so managing that relationship would be a key task for any president. Mitt Romney has been talking tough on the subject.

But as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, past presidents have had to walk back their tough campaign rhetoric on China after they take office.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: When Ronald Reagan ran for office in 1980, he often blasted Jimmy Carter for, in his words, abandoning Taiwan to establish relations with China.

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GOVERNOR RONALD REAGAN: There will be no more abandonment of friends and allies by the United States of America, and I want very much to send that message.

KELEMEN: In 1992, when Bill Clinton was running for office, he accused President George H.W. Bush of coddling those he called the butchers of Beijing.

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GOVERNOR BILL CLINTON: This administration and this president failed to stand up for our values. Instead, he sent secret emissaries to China, signaling that we would do business as usual with those who murdered freedom in Tiananmen Square.

KELEMEN: And then there was George W. Bush, who said in a CNN debate in 2000 that the one thing he'd change about Clinton's foreign policy was America's attitude toward China.

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GOVERNOR GEORGE W. BUSH: The current president has called the relationship with China a strategic partnership. I believe our relationship needs to be redefined as one as competitor.

KELEMEN: There is a pattern in all of this, says Jeff Bader of the Brookings Institution.

JEFF BADER: We have an unhappy history of candidates taking a tough line on China during campaign for political purposes. And then after the election, a period during which they had to walk back their commitments, with damage to our credibility and finally, essentially, adopt the policies of their predecessors.

KELEMEN: These days, Republican Mitt Romney says if he becomes president, he would label china a currency manipulator. Bader, who worked in President Obama's White House, thinks that could spark a trade war and points out that both Presidents Obama and Bush opted against that.

BADER: The rhetoric and talk of campaigns seems to assume that the Chinese have no response but - to use a Chinese phrase - to tremble and obey once we've decided on a new course. And actually, the Chinese have the ability to respond and to retaliate. And when you're in a campaign, you don't worry about that. But when you're president you do, particularly now that this is the world's number two economy.

KELEMEN: This pattern of using China as a whipping boy in the campaign and then softening the U.S. position may not hold much longer, though, argues Ted Galen Carpenter of the CATO Institute. He says there is a growing sense that China is gaining on the U.S. And America's debt to China is a major concern as well.

TED GALEN CARPENTER: There's resentment and not very well disguised resentment against the Chinese. Add to that some very real grievances about the value of China's currency, and some of the strategic tensions involving the South China Sea especially. And you have a mix for a less friendly relationship than what we have seen probably since the Tiananmen Square massacre.

KELEMEN: The U.S. has already been shifting military assets to the Asia Pacific region. And this so-called pivot to Asia will likely continue, according to Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic International Studies.

BONNIE GLASER: The Asia Pacific region is the most dynamic region of the world. It is the most economically dynamic region. U.S. exports to the region are increasing much faster than our exports to other parts of the world. And in addition to that, because of China's rise, that region requires more attention from the U.S.

KELEMEN: Glaser says Republican and Democratic administrations alike have sought to engage China but also pursue what she calls a hedging policy.

GLASER: We have the Chinese developing some military capabilities that are often referred to as anti-access area denial capabilities that would make it risky for the United States military to operate close to Chinese shores if there's a conflict. And the U.S. has to ensure that we are 10 steps ahead of the Chinese.

KELEMEN: And that's true in other fields as well, she says. But Glaser also points out that there is no certainty that China will remain the economic powerhouse that it is today, and the U.S. has to be mindful of the many internal challenges facing China.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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