China has not been a major foreign policy talking point for either candidate in during the campaigns. On the one hand, this is disappointing, because the US relationship is complex, dynamic and critical. Both candidates recognize that China is “rising,” and it will be vital for the next President to engage China effectively, shaping China’s rise and positioning the US to adapt and adjust to China’s growth. On the other hand, it might be good, because campaign rhetoric targeting American ears is unlikely to be comforting to Chinese listeners, or actually reflect how policy will be crafted in the next administration. I am comforted by the fact that both candidates have assembled top-notch teams of experienced foreign policy experts to advise them on China and Asia policy.
But is there a difference in what their China policy might look like should they be elected? If I asked each candidate, I suspect they would both immediately say, “yes.” But when I parse what each has said, the differences are subtle.

Senator McCain has said the right things about getting our relationship with China right. Most of his remarks have focused on ensuring that China lives up to its responsibilities and is a reliable actor in the international arena. His 2007 article in Foreign Affairs addresses US-China relations in three paragraphs, highlighting opportunities as well as the challenges:

China and the United States are not destined to be adversaries. We have numerous overlapping interests. U.S.-Chinese relations can benefit both countries and, in turn, the Asia-Pacific region and the world. But until China moves toward political liberalization, our relationship will be based on periodically shared interests rather than the bedrock of shared values.

Senator McCain’s comments on China in speeches, at the debates and in fact sheets and essays have been measured and consistently recognize that mutual interests are balanced by concerns about China’s military modernization and a lack of transparency. He has also clearly stated his expectations that China realize its obligations on a number of fronts, including opening its markets to US goods and services, energy and climate change, proliferation and China’s relations with pariah states. Speaking to journalists at the World Economic Forum in 2007, his remarks were summed up as, “it’s time for China to step up and assume its responsibilities.”