WASHINGTON – When Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama said in a recent debate that "the center of gravity in this world is shifting to Asia," he had one nation clearly in mind.
More than a year before the 2008 election, China — occasionally as partner, more often as adversary and potential vote-getter — is also rising as an issue among the candidates for president.
Iraq is, and will be, the top foreign policy issue among the people jockeying for the White House. But as detractors increasingly shine a critical spotlight on China in the buildup to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the contenders will likely ratchet up their rhetoric on China's ability to help and to hinder American interests around the world.
"It's impossible to avoid China as a policy issue," Doug Holtz-Eakin, a policy adviser to the campaign of Republican Sen. John McCain, said in an interview. "Anybody who is interested in being the next president of the United States has to think consciously about how ... to have China emerge as a responsible stakeholder."
Candidates have been raising, in debates and campaign stops, what they see as China's failure to live up to its duties as an emerging global superpower.
But they also recognize that the U.S. needs China, a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council, to secure punishment for Iran's nuclear program and to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
As Republican Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, said: "If I'm lucky enough to be president, making China a partner for stability in the world will be one of my highest priorities. China is really key, in many respects, as they become a very large economy."
Many of the comments, however, have been complaints, as candidates work to connect with voters increasingly worried about China's huge military buildup, its flood of goods into the U.S., its ability to influence violence in Sudan's Darfur region, its repression of minorities, dissidents and journalists.
Michael Green, President Bush's former chief adviser on Asia, said that regardless of any harsh words candidates direct toward China, the next president will likely embrace the same measured U.S. policies endorsed by past administrations.
Bashing China might win votes, the reasoning goes, but newly elected presidents soon realize that a more careful tone is needed to deal with the complex U.S.-China relationship.
Still, as the 2008 campaign heats up, criticism has outweighed calls for engagement.
A recurring theme has been that China must do more to use its oil-buying leverage with Sudan to end rape and murder in Darfur.
In a June debate, Democrat Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico, suggested that if China does not put more pressure on Sudan, "we say to them, maybe we won't go to the Olympics."
Attention has also been given to Beijing's economic policies and the U.S. trade deficit with China — $232.5 billion last year and expected to grow.
At a debate this month, Obama said of China: "We've got to have a president in the White House who's negotiating to make sure that we're looking after American workers. That means enforcing our trade agreements. It means that if they're manipulating their currency, that we take them to the mat on this issue."
American manufacturers contend the Chinese currency is undervalued by as much as 40 percent, giving China a tremendous competitive advantage against U.S. products.
Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton received applause at a debate by raising reports of faulty or tainted Chinese goods that have been shipped to the United States and other countries. It was under Clinton's husband, former President Clinton, that the U.S. normalized trade relations with China.
"We have to have tougher standards on what they import into this country," Clinton said. "I do not want to eat bad food from China or have my children having toys that are going to get them sick."