Lost in the back-and-forth is any defense of U.S.-China relations as a whole, and how the candidates would handle the challenges China's burgeoning economic, diplomatic and military might pose to U.S. pre-eminence.
For much of the past two decades, presidential candidates have bashed China on the campaign trail and taken a tough line once in office only to find that global trade and hotspots require engaging Beijing. The Chinese government has reminded its people of that pattern in state media reporting on the election.
Four years ago, Obama attempted to break with the past by trying to treat China as a partner in solving global issues: the Great Recession, climate change and nuclear proliferation. He was rebuffed by Beijing, which took the overture as a sign of declining American power. Re-tacking, Obama has begun diverting more naval and other military resources to Asia, shoring up longstanding alliances from Japan to Australia and building a new one with Vietnam.
Beijing views the current policy as hedged containment and sees Washington's hand behind current territorial disputes over remote islands with the Philippines and Japan. Senior U.S. and Chinese analysts have warned of a deepening distrust between Washington and Beijing that has the potential to impede solutions to conflict in the Middle East, better managing the global economy and other world problems.
If the candidates have answers to that predicament, they did not say. Their final debate on foreign policy — and a chance to make the case for constructive U.S.-China relations — takes place next week.
Charles Hutzler has been Associated Press bureau chief in Beijing since 2006. Joe McDonald has reported on China for AP for 15 years.
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