When U.S. President Barack Obama labelled China an "adversary" during Monday's foreign-policy debate on with challenger Mitt Romney, official Beijing barely flinched. They had been expecting much worse after a presidential campaign marked with China-bashing by both men.
While Mr. Obama's remark was front-page news in China's state-controlled media – and a hot topic online – there was also palpable relief that both candidates, anxious to focus on vote-winning domestic issues, steered the debate away from the who-is-tougher-on-Beijing showdown that the Communist Party leadership seemed braced for.
Even Mr. Obama's comment was hedged. "China's an adversary, and also a potential partner in the international community if it's following the rules," he said in a special section dedicated to the topic of China's rise during the third and final debate before the Nov. 6 election.
Mr. Romney repeated his promise to label China a "currency manipulator" on the first day he took office, but also said "we can work with them, collaborate with them." He challenged moderator Bob Schieffer's premise that China's rise was the greatest challenge the U.S. would face. "Let me also note that the greatest threat that the world faces, the greatest national security threat, is a nuclear Iran," he said.
Neither man mentioned China's increasingly testy border disputes with U.S. allies Japan, India and the Philippines. Nor did the topic of human rights in China – or the name of jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo – come up.
"They have toned down their rhetoric," the Global Times, a Communist Party newspaper, noted approvingly. "Even public opinion in the U.S. is tired of watching them use China as a gimmick."
Another topic that didn't come up was the secretive nature of China's own leadership selection process. Senior members of the Communist Party will gather two days after the U.S. election for a 10-day closed-door meeting after which they will introduce the new Politburo that will serve under Vice-President Xi Jinping, the presumed heir to President Hu Jintao. "Their president needs to be selected ballot by ballot – not like the dynasty of heaven, where there has been no voting yet, but everyone knows [the next president] will be Xi," wrote one commentator on the Sina Weibo social networking site, where the U.S. presidential debates – and their perceived anti-China tone – were hotly discussed.
The substantive debate about China between Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney was focused on how to level the playing ground so that American firms could compete with China's manufacturing juggernaut.
"They're stealing our intellectual property, our patents, our designs, our technology, hacking into our computers, counterfeiting our goods. They have to understand, we want to trade with them, we want a world that's stable, we like free enterprise, but you got to play by the rules," Mr. Romney said.
Asked if his promise to label China a currency manipulator risked starting a trade war between the two largest economies, Mr. Romney said a de facto trade war was already underway. "We have to say to our friends in China, look, you guys are playing aggressively, we understand it, but — but this can't keep on going. You can't keep on holding down the value of your currency, stealing our intellectual property, counterfeiting our products, selling them around the world, even into the United States."
Mr. Obama noted his administration had brought more trade complaints against China in his first term than his predecessor, George W. Bush, had in eight years.
When he first came to office, Mr. Obama tried accommodating Chinese leaders – hoping gestures like avoiding a meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2009 would translate into help from Beijing on issues like the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs. When that approach yielded little, Mr. Obama's took a tougher line towards Beijing, successfully pressuring it to end the yuan's unofficial (and artificially low) peg to the dollar, and last year announcing a "pivot" that will see the U.S. military turn its focus away from the Middle East and back towards Asia in an unspoken response to the perceived challenge from China.
Relations between Washington and Beijing are now as cool as they have been at any point in the last decade.
But China's leaders are used to tough talk during the campaign, followed by the winner taking a more practical approach once they're in the White House.
"Words are not the same as deeds," read an editorial Wednesday that appeared in the official China Daily. "And once elected, whoever wins will have to come to terms with reality and take practical steps to rebuild the bridges that the China-bashing rhetoric has damaged."