Arguably the world's most important bilateral relationship took a back seat to Clinton-bashing in the GOP debate last night. But the word "China" did pop up six times (and "Chinese" twice) often in strange, but revealing, ways. Last night, China was not so much a country, but a symbol of American decline -- "winning," "hacking," or "lending" its way to victory, always at America's expense.

Winning

Donald Trump was the first to go there, managing to turn a question about misogyny into an evocation of America the weak:

KELLY: Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women's looks. You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president, and how will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton, who is likely to be the Democratic nominee, that you are part of the war on women?

TRUMP: I think the big problem in this country is being politically correct.

(APPLAUSE)

I've been challenged by so many people, and I don't frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn't have time either. This country is in big trouble. We don't win anymore. We lose to China. We lose to Mexico both in trade and at the border. We lose to everybody.

Interesting here, aside from the dodge, is Trump's use of China as a foil. The China he conjures is strong and powerful, while the U.S. is beating a lame retreat. It is a narrative that seems to resonate stateside but is starkly at odds with how China sees itself. China, in its own eyes, is not a "winner"—yet—but an emerging economy trying to get back on track after a century of humiliation. What, they might ask, did America "lose?" (Trump did not specify.)

Hacking

The country came up again in a question about cyber war directed at Senator Cruz:

BAIER: ... This comes in the wake of the Director of National Intelligence blaming the Chinese for the largest ever cyber attack, stealing personal data of tens of millions of Americans.

Senator Cruz, in your view, have Russia and China committed cyber war, and if you were president, what would you do about it?

CRUZ: Well, Bret, of course they have, and over the last six and a half years we've seen the consequences of the Obama-Clinton foreign policy. Leading from behind is a disaster. We have abandoned and alienated our friends and allies, and our enemies are stronger. Radical Islam is on the rise, Iran's on the verge of acquiring a nuclear weapon, China is waging cyber warfare against America, Russia -- General Soleimani, you just mentioned, the Iranian general is the head of the al Quds forces.

He's directly responsible for the murder of over 500 American servicemen in Iraq, and part of this Iranian deal was lifting the international sanctions on General Soleimani. The day General Soleimani flew back from Moscow to Iran was the day we believed that Russia used cyber warfare against the Joint Chiefs. We need a new commander in chief that will stand up to our enemies, and that will have credibility....

This is a reference to the recent Office of Personnel Management, OPM hack, which U.S. officials have linked to China despite protests from Beijing. But Cruz quickly turns the case, and the question of cyber security, into a metaphor for American weakness vis-a-vis just about everyone and everything else.

Lending

The third exchange moved rather quickly from foreign aid, to flag burning, to China's role as a lender:

PAUL: … and I’ve said — and I’ve said I would cut spending, and I’ve said exactly where. Each one of my budgets has taken a meat axe to foreign aid, because I think we ought to quit sending it to countries that hate us.

(APPLAUSE)

I think we ought to quit sending it to countries that burn our flag. Israel is not one of those. But even Benjamin Netanyahu said that ultimately, they will be stronger when they’re independent. My position is exactly the same.

We shouldn’t borrow money from China to send it anywhere, but why don’t we start with eliminating aid to our enemies.

BAIER: OK. But you still say that Israel could be one of the countries that is cut from financial aid?

PAUL: I still say exactly what my original opinion is. Do you borrow money from China to send it to anyone? Out of your surplus, you can help your allies, and Israel is a great ally. And this is no particular animus of Israel, but what I will say, and I will say over and over again, we cannot give away money we don’t have.

We do not project power from bankruptcy court. We’re borrowing a million dollars a minute.

In this case, China gets dragged into a debate about U.S. support of Israel and other allies, and the candidate invokes China, the lender, to warn of America's need to balance its books. It is not really a statement on China, or U.S.-China relations, but it dovetails with the 'China is strong, America is weak' theme.

Winning, one more time 

And in case that message was lost on anybody, Trump closed things down with a reminder that America, unlike China, just can't win:

TRUMP: Our country is in serious trouble. We don't win anymore.

We don't beat China in trade. We don't beat Japan, with their millions and millions of cars coming into this country, in trade. We can't beat Mexico, at the border or in trade.

We can't do anything right. Our military has to be strengthened. Our vets have to be taken care of. We have to end Obamacare, and we have to make our country great again, and I will do that.

All of this may come as a surprise to China as it manages its market meltdown. But a win is a win, after all.