WASHINGTON • United States President Barack Obama refused to bash China when he ran for the White House in 2008, which set him apart from other candidates.
None of Mr Obama's would-be successors is showing similar restraint. Some, like Mr Donald Trump, are bashing Beijing with gleeful abandon.
Those distinctions were probably on the mind of Chinese President Xi Jinping when he sat down with Mr Obama yesterday for a one-on- one meeting during the Nuclear Security Summit, which fell in the middle of America's no-holds-barred political season.
The surge in anti-China sentiment on the campaign trail cast a shadow over the Obama-Xi meeting, and it could have ominous consequences for China's relationship with the United States after Mr Obama leaves office.
While tarring China is a predictable election-year tactic and recognised as such by Chinese officials, experts said there are deeper corrosive forces at play this year.
For Mr Obama, it is ironic that he has become a friendly face for Mr Xi. Although he invited the Chinese leader to an intimate meeting in Southern California in June 2013, the two got off to a bumpy start.
Mr Trump, the Republican front runner, has characterised Chinese leaders as something close to evil geniuses who manipulate their currency and swindle Americans out of their money through bad trade deals. He has threatened to impose a 45 per cent tax on Chinese imports, a step that experts said would ignite a full-blown trade war.
Mrs Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front runner, is more measured. But she has relentlessly criticised China for its cyber attacks, and last September she said on Twitter that Mr Xi was "shameless" for playing host at a United Nations meeting on women's rights at a time when his government had put several female activists in jail.
For Mr Obama, it is ironic that he has become a friendly face for Mr Xi. Although he invited the Chinese leader to an intimate meeting in Southern California in June 2013, the two got off to a bumpy start, exchanging sharp words over allegations of China's cyber hacking and theft of US corporate secrets.
In 2014, the two leaders agreed on ambitious targets for reductions in carbon emissions. That put the relationship on a firmer footing, and Mr Obama invited Mr Xi for a state dinner, brushing aside calls from Republican candidates to cancel the meeting to protest against China's cyber espionage and currency manipulation.
China experts said Mr Xi was likely to have delivered a reassuring message to Mr Obama yesterday: He probably repeated his statement from last autumn that China does not intend to militarise the South China Sea. The meeting, they said, may have been as much about sending a signal to the next president as it is about preserving his ties with the current one.
"Xi's visit is meant to show that China is not an enemy of the US," Dr Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution, said. "But the message also is, 'If you don't cooperate with us, that will be your problem, not ours.'"
NEW YORK TIMES