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US presidential candidates must pay more attention to China

The 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, catapulted national security to the forefront of the U.S. presidential primary campaigns. Yet, while terrorism is a serious and widely acknowledged threat, the rise of China -- another major challenge and perhaps one with greater long-term consequences for America and for the world -- has been all but ignored.

     There has been ritualistic U.S. criticism of China, but even this has been muted. Candidates have called out China for cyberattacks or aggression in the South China Sea, but only to check the box before pivoting to Iran, Russia or ISIS.

     Irrespective of who wins the election, however, the next U.S. administration will almost certainly toughen its approach toward Beijing as a central part of its overall Asia policy. This reflects growing consensus among foreign policy experts and leaders on both sides of the aisle that more accommodating approaches have failed.

BARK, NOT BITE   Since normalization of U.S.-China relations in the 1970s, U.S. presidents on the campaign trail have usually promised a tougher line on China, only to revert to a more cooperative position in office. Ronald Reagan reneged on his promise to re-establish official relations with Taiwan. Bill Clinton criticized President George H.W. Bush for engaging China after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and ignoring human rights. As president, Clinton did not link trade and human rights, despite promising to do so. And he deepened diplomatic engagement with China.

     As a candidate, George W. Bush criticized Clinton for treating China as a strategic partner rather than a competitor. Yet when faced with the Hainan Island incident months after taking office, when a U.S. surveillance aircraft was downed in a collision with a Chinese fighter jet, he ignored hawkish voices and negotiated a compromise. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Bush largely abandoned efforts to pursue a more competitive approach toward Beijing.

     Obama took the opposite course. He ran promising a period of cooperative engagement with Beijing, in which the two powers would work together to resolve global challenges such as climate change. In his first year in office, senior officials floated the concept of "strategic reassurance," which sought to de-emphasize competitive dynamics in the relationship and highlight areas of shared interest.

     However, China saw the U.S. as weakened after the financial crisis and responded assertively. Obama was compelled to shift course in 2010, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton playing an important role in hardening the U.S. position, including by weighing in on the South China Sea disputes and initiating the U.S. "pivot" to Asia. The advent of Xi Jinping as an increasingly forceful Chinese leader accentuated these trends in U.S. policy.

     What sort of China policy can we expect from the U.S. in 2016?

     Although the Republican primary campaign has been eventful and unpredictable, the outcome of the general election can be narrowed down to just a few options. The next president is almost certain to be either Hillary Clinton or an establishment Republican, most probably Marco Rubio or possibly Jeb Bush or Chris Christie. The outsider Republican candidates -- Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Ben Carson -- are unlikely to prevail because they are unable to broaden the appeal of the Republican Party.

     Although there are significant differences among the candidates on individual issues, both Clinton on the one hand, and Rubio, Bush or any other mainstream Republican on the other, will maintain America's presence in Asia and emphasize the importance of alliances. All are likely to see China primarily through the lens of a strategic competition with Beijing.

     As secretary of state, Clinton made East Asia a priority and was responsible for pushing back against China's regional maritime moves, as well as on human rights, trade, cyberattacks and regional security architecture. She has tactically expressed doubts about the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact as a candidate, but as president she would be expected to deepen U.S. engagement in East Asia, strengthen alliances and partnerships, bolster deterrence and expand America's economic ties to the region.

     The mainstream Republican candidates likewise will want to increase the U.S. military presence in Asia, ratify the TPP, deepen alliances and strategic partnerships, and respond to China as a competitor. Rubio has introduced more of an ideological dimension, with an emphasis on human rights and democracy in China, but support for the spread of democracy is a long-standing theme in U.S. grand strategy toward Asia.

     What if lightning struck and one of the outsiders became president?

     Trump has a track record, dating back to the 1980s, of criticizing Japan, America's key Asian ally. In this campaign, he has pledged to renegotiate the 1960 U.S.-Japan alliance and has criticized the U.S. security guarantee to South Korea. This fits into a broader, hypernationalist worldview that has little time for the U.S. alliances and harkens back to a deep Jacksonian impulse reawakened by U.S. travails in the Middle East. The realities of office might constrain him, but America's allies have reason to be alarmed about a Trump presidency.

ASIAN DILEMMAS   Cruz has said virtually nothing about China or the Asia-Pacific more generally, except for opposing the TPP. His foreign policy speeches have focused almost entirely on ISIS and Iran. He has spoken out against democracy-promotion and in favor of working with friendly dictatorships. Again, allies eager for U.S. leadership are unlikely to find much reason for encouragement.

     Irrespective of the election outcome, however, U.S. Asia strategy will be shaped more by three strategic dilemmas than by anything the next president says on the campaign trail.

     The first is how to counter China's revisionist coercion strategy of incrementally changing the strategic balance in East Asia by creating "facts on the ground" without using outright force or aggression.

     An international arbitration ruling that China's "nine-dash line" claim to much of the South China Sea is inconsistent with international law, miscalculation by any of the parties in the East or South China seas, or increased militarization of China's facilities in contested territory could trigger a crisis early in any new administration.

     The next president may have little choice except to adopt a more assertive posture, but this will not be easy. America's allies will seek reassurance that this approach is sustainable, particularly in light of pressures on the U.S. defense budget, China's economic leverage over regional countries and, above all, unpredictable demands on the U.S. elsewhere.

     The second dilemma is, ironically, more about Chinese weakness than Chinese strength: how to handle an increasingly brittle and insecure China.

     China has been rising for so long that no recent U.S. president has had to think seriously about instability in the country, at least since 1989. But as noted by China scholar Minxin Pei, China's economic downturn and increasing authoritarianism mean the U.S. may find itself dealing with a more unpredictable and volatile country.

     The third dilemma is the extent to which the next administration is drawn deeper into Syria. No-fly zones, safe havens and arming Sunni forces would demand significant U.S. military and diplomatic resources. How will the incoming president convince East Asian allies that Syria will not consume the administration's first term and crowd out everything else?

     Moreover, a major terrorist attack in the U.S. could throw the durability of the rebalance into real doubt.

     All of this means the next administration must work hard to reassure U.S. allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific that it has a clear strategy for the region, backed up by the will and resources to sustain it. Implementing the military, diplomatic and economic elements of the "rebalance" will require toughness, consistency and frequent high-level engagement.

     But America's friends and allies need to step up, too. Often they would prefer to let others stand up to China and avoid spending what they should on defense. Yet they also have a part to play in supporting a regional order that has underpinned more than half a century of peace and prosperity -- and can do so again if properly attended to.

Andrew Shearer, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, was formerly Australian national security adviser; Thomas Wright is a fellow and director of the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

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