2016 candidates take aim at China

Walker: Chinese leaders should be taken to the woodshed
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Story highlights

  • The gap between campaign trail histrionics and the shape of U.S.-China policy may not be so gaping after the 2016 campaign.
  • There is a growing debate in Washington over whether the American relationship with Beijing needs to be reimagined.

Charleston, South Carolina (CNN)China makes a big, red political target in almost every White House campaign, and it is in the crosshairs yet again as Republican candidates line up to bash Beijing.

History shows, however, that rookie presidents often change their tune when charged with managing America's complex and intertwined relationship with the rising Asian giant.
Presidents from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama pledged on the campaign trail to get tough with China on issues like human rights and trade but once elected concluded that persuasion rather than coercion was the way to get results.
    But things could be changing -- and the gap between campaign trail histrionics and the shape of U.S.-China policy may not be quite so gaping after the 2016 campaign.
    The re-evaluation of U.S.-China strategy that looks to be in the offing would go beyond the normal political point-scoring and shift the balance between cooperation and confrontation that defines U.S. relations with Beijing.

    Hawkish rhetoric

    At first sight, the latest hawkish rhetoric by Republican candidates like Donald Trump, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio toward China -- including calls for President Xi Jinping's state visit next month to be scrapped or downgraded -- is nothing new.
    There's a clear political opening for GOP hopefuls in the welcome the White House is lining up for Xi, who surprised Washington with his swift consolidation of power after taking office in 2013 and the crackdown on dissent and belligerent geopolitical turn that followed.
    Claims that Chinese hackers stole U.S. government personnel records at the same time Beijing builds up its military and tries to grab territory in the South and East China Sea in particular make it easy for GOP hopefuls to argue Obama is being too soft on Beijing.
    Meanwhile, this week's stock market crash in China triggering a short-term global contagion is adding to the feverish political atmosphere ahead of Xi's visit.
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    Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, called for Xi to be disinvited and taken to the "woodshed." Trump, the billionaire real estate mogul, who often claims "smart" Chinese leaders are schooling Obama, said he would offer the Chinese leader a Big Mac rather than the pomp of a state dinner.
    Not to be outdone, Rubio, who is building a hawkish foreign policy resume and who unveiled a major China strategy in a speech in South Carolina on Friday, called for Xi's trip to be downgraded to a working visit.
    The White House, looking to get in its own political licks, jabbed Rubio's suggestions as sounding "like a proposal from somebody who's running to be social secretary of the White House."
    In any case, calls for a downgrade of the visit were essentially frivolous given that the candidates had little chance of swaying Obama's hand. And embarrassing Xi in public would surely cause reprisals by Beijing given the importance Chinese leaders place on formal ceremony, especially state dinners at the White House.

    Strains between the U.S. and China

    But that does not mean all is well in U.S.-China relations; in fact, there is a growing debate among Beijing watchers in Washington over whether the entire American relationship with the emerging Eastern superpower needs to be reimagined, perhaps pointing to a more assertive American posture toward China, that could see increased military power sent to Asia or reprisals for alleged cyberattacks.
    Successive U.S. administrations, seeking to guarantee that China's inevitable rise is peaceful, have offered Beijing gradually increasing access to the economic and trading system in return for China agreeing to play by global rules.
    But from the U.S. point of view, that approach is now being challenged as China doesn't appear to necessarily be keeping its end of the bargain.
    Xi's strong-arm leadership, signs that China is aggressively seeking to project power throughout its neighborhood in East Asia and indications that it resents the U.S. role as a guarantee of Pacific security are coloring the way Beijing is viewed in Washington.
    "It's almost exclusively because of developments in China and in China's behavior and in the region around China that people are really starting to wonder where the process is going," said Aaron Friedberg, a Princeton University professor who used to work on China policy for former Vice President Dick Cheney.
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    While no candidate has suggested overhauling U.S.-China policy yet, Friedberg said he was "waiting for someone to say we really need to rethink."
    Rubio went as close as any candidate to that point in his speech Friday, outlining positions that would add up to a more contentious relationship between China and the United States than even today's increasingly tense ties.
    "President Obama has hoped that being more open to China would make them a more responsible nation. It has not worked. We can no longer succumb to the illusion that more dialogue with China's current rulers will narrow the gap in values and interests that separates us," Rubio said. "Our nominee must have a plan to correct U.S.-China relations."
    Rubio, a senator from Florida, said he would boost defense spending, send U.S. ships and planes through disputed waters and airspace claimed by China and show Beijing that cyberhacking "comes with a cost."
    He said he would also prioritize human rights: He vowed to send U.S. officials to outlawed "underground" churches in China and to invite dissidents to his inauguration if he is elected president. He would also help Chinese citizens breach Internet censorship known as the "Great Firewall of China."
    Rubio's speech amounted to the most comprehensive survey of China policy yet given by a 2016 candidate -- or any potential president at this stage of the election cycle in recent memory, said Friedberg, who is not formally affiliated with any presidential candidate.

    A new foreign policy priority for campaigns

    That candidates are now making China such a focal point of their foreign policy platforms alone indicates how China has grown and projected a different type of power in recent years.
    China, too, has a different perspective now of the U.S. political fray. Where officials there might once have looked on such political rhetoric with bewilderment, they have become increasingly sophisticated in understanding the swings of U.S. campaign politics.
    "They are very jaded about the U.S. electoral process," said Melanie Hart, director for China Policy at the progressive Center for American Progress.
    "They know that all the presidential candidates are all going to bash China," Hart said, though she indicated that she didn't think the tough talk presaged a different posture for the United States come January 2017.
    "They know that when they are elected, they will follow the same approach their predecessor did," she said.
    Hart argued that the more confrontational approaches taken on China discounted the huge complexity of the relationship between the United States and Beijing and were likely to be reined when faced with common challenges such as global warming, Iran and North Korea.
    But in the meantime, it may not take a Republican to remold U.S.-China policy; Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton is seen in Beijing and Washington as more hawkish toward China than Obama.
    She has rejected the notion that Washington wanted to contain China. But she was also an architect of Obama's pivot to Asia strategy, which was perceived by some inside China as an attempt to encircle the country with U.S. allies.
    She has been irking China on human rights for 20 years and has few illusions about the ultimate shape of the relationship.
    "We should follow a time-tested strategy: Work for the best outcome, but plan for something less," Clinton wrote in her book "Hard Choices."
    Hart said Clinton could be even more of a challenge for Chinese leaders than GOP hopefuls but was also more likely to get results.
    "She has a very detailed understanding on how Chinese power has shifted," she said, adding that she could "push our China game a little further between great cooperation and a strong hand in our interests."