China may be a rising superpower, but in the fifth Republican presidential debate, it played a bit part.
The last time the candidates gathered, Chris Christie said he would fly Air Force One over the South China Sea and promised cyberwarfare "like they have never seen before."
This time around, the tone was less bombastic. The first two hours of the broadcast featured two utterances of the word "China" but only as asides. As the evening waned, the country came up in answers to questions about — what else? — North Korea.
Carly Fiorina, Christie and Jeb Bush all alluded, in different ways, to the threat they see in China's rise. The theme was "show 'em we mean business. " New policy prescriptions were few and far between, and the main focus was elsewhere.
Fiorina brought China into the debate by arguing that "isolating" North Korea will require working with China which, by most expert accounts, is true.
What was striking is that she coupled her call for cooperation by suggesting the United States must simultaneously "contain China." That's language sure to rile her new partners, the Chinese, who vehemently oppose containment of any kind.
FIORINA: Well, first, Kim Jong Un is a dangerous leader, without a doubt. And both Republican and Democrat administrations have been completely ineffective in dealing with him. So we must continue to isolate him. We will need China as part of that strategy.
China is a rising adversary. So one of the things we have to do if we want China's support is to push back on China. They, too, recognize one thing — strength and their own economic interest.
I have done business in China for 25 years, so I know that in order to get China to cooperate with us, we must first actually retaliate against their cyberattacks so they know we're serious. We have to push back on their desire to control the trade route through the South China Sea through which flows $5 trillion worth of goods and services every year.
We cannot let them control the disputed islands, and we must work with the Australians, the South Koreans, the Japanese and the Filipinos to contain China. And then we must ask for their support and their help with North Korea. Because believe it or not, China is as concerned about Kim Jong Un as we are.
The moderators then asked Christie to elaborate on his earlier call for cyberwarfare like the Chinese "have never seen."
Christie responded by suggesting that the United States should give China a taste of its own medicine, leaking private details about China's rich in retaliation for the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) hack.
CHRISTIE: So if they want to come in and attack all the personnel records in the federal government, which they've done, and which — they now have my Social Security number and my fingerprints, as well as maybe some other folks' who are on this stage.
The fact is, they need to be fought back on. And what we need to do is go at the things that they are most sensitive and most embarrassing to them; that they're hiding; get that information and put it out in public. Let the Chinese people start to digest how corrupt the Chinese government is; how they steal from the Chinese people; and how they're enriching oligarchs all throughout China.
It's worth noting that prize-winning investigations into the wealth of China's top leaders by the New York Times and Bloomberg were not covered by China's state-controlled press and were effectively blocked from the country's Internet. In other words, getting sensitive information about Chinese oligarchs into the hands of ordinary Chinese would, in practice, be pretty tough.
And then there's the risk of escalation. In a quick follow-up to Christie's remarks, the moderators asked Bush if he worried retaliatory measures against the Chinese could put America —particularly its power grid — at greater risk.
Bush said he agreed with Christie's approach. He also ventured that strong cyberdefense was critical — and an important way to earn China's "respect."
BUSH: We have to have the best defensive capabilities. We need to coordinate all of our efforts with the private sector. We need to give them liability relief so that we can do that. And offensively, we need to have capabilities second to none. We need to create a situation where they know that there will be adverse impacts if they continue to do what they're doing.
They'll respect that. They'll respect a United States that is serious about protecting our — our infrastructure. If we don't do it, we'll continue to see what's — exactly what's happening, not just from the Chinese, by the way. The Russians and rogue actors, including ISIS — this is a serious part of the 21st century security challenge that we face.
And with that, the debate moved on.