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China Plays Modest Role In U.S. Presidential Race

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China Plays Modest Role In U.S. Presidential Race

China Plays Modest Role In U.S. Presidential Race

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

President Bush is touring Asia on his way to the Olympic opening ceremonies in Beijing. Today, the White House released excerpts of a speech he will give tomorrow in Thailand. The president will say China can do more to pressure governments such as Sudan on human rights. He will also criticize China's human rights record in its own country.

Relations with China are one of the most significant foreign policy concerns these days, but in the presidential campaign, China has not figured prominently for Barack Obama or John McCain.

NPR's Mike Shuster reports on what stands the candidates have taken.

MIKE SHUSTER: Of the two candidates, Senator McCain has been the more vocal on China. Last month, when the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, visited the United States, McCain met with him and urged China's leaders, in the wake of widespread protests in March, to engage with the Tibetan leader.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): I urge the Chinese government to release Tibetan political prisoners, account for Tibetans who have, quote, "disappeared" since the protests in March, and engage in meaningful dialogue and genuine autonomy for Tibet.

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

Sen. McCAIN: The United States welcomes good relations with China, 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.

SHUSTER: 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.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): The emergence of an economically vibrant, more politically active China offers new opportunities for prosperity and cooperation, but it also poses new challenges.

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

Sen. OBAMA: 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.

SHUSTER: 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 Scheunemann, while clearly concerned about Beijing's military buildup, says McCain does not believe the U.S. and China are destined to be adversaries.

Mr. RANDY SCHEUNEMANN (McCain Adviser): At the same time, there are elements of Chinese behavior which are very troubling, and he has pointed specifically to their military buildup. They appear to be gaining, for example, maritime capabilities that would 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.

SHUSTER: There are also advisers in Obama's camp who express their concerns about China more candidly than the candidate. Susan Rice, his chief foreign policy adviser, says China requires a careful and sophisticated approach.

Ms. SUSAN RICE (Obama Adviser): Need to watch with interest and perhaps increasingly with concern its military program. 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.

SHUSTER: 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, George W. Bush and his advisers viewed China suspiciously as a strategic competitor. Over eight years, President Bush has met with Chinese presidents 14 times. This week 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.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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