If American political candidates have a favorite punching bag, it's China. Wonkblog's Ana Swanson explains why so many candidates change their tune once elected, and just how important the U.S.-China relationship really is. (Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

A flashpoint every four years in American politics, China again has become a target for Republicans and Democrats alike on the presidential campaign trail. But foreign policy experts said there is mounting evidence that this time it’s more than a rhetorical gambit: Escalating tensions have left officials on both sides of the Pacific preparing for a shift in U.S. policy toward China, no matter which political party wins the 2016 election.

As President Obama prepares to welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping to the White House on Thursday, those vying to succeed Obama have begun bashing China over its currency ma­nipu­la­tion, cyberhacking, human rights abuses and aggression in the South China Sea.

Although Obama aides and Chinese officials have tried to shrug off the attacks as election-season pandering, analysts said the tough talk reflects souring attitudes toward China on Capitol Hill and in the public. And they suggested that the fear of a less friendly administration to come has contributed to China’s recent provocations.

“What I think they’re really concerned about is what comes next,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “And as a result, I think they’re trying to use this one-year-plus period in the Obama administration to get done in some areas as much as they can. In fact, I would argue this is what’s going on in the artificial island building in the South China Sea.”

Xi’s two-day state visit to Washington is meant to reassure U.S. political leaders that China will be a reliable global partner and that its economic and territorial ambitions in Asia under his leadership are benign. In an address to business leaders in Seattle on Tuesday, the Chinese leader pledged to fight against cyberattacks and proposed creating a “high-level joint dialogue mechanism” with the United States to establish ground rules in cyberspace and to resolve disputes.

China has achieved extraordinary economic growth in the last several decades. Now, China’s long-term future requires an ambitious restructuring of its economy, emphasizing domestic consumption over government investment. (Goldman Sachs/goldmansachs.com)

But, it is unlikely that Xi and Obama will be able to announce major breakthroughs on the scale of the climate deal they reached last fall in Beijing, and that will make it difficult for the Chinese leader to accomplish those goals.

Meantime, public opinion of China has soured as the United States has slowly recovered from the Great Recession. This year, 54 percent of Americans held an unfavorable view of China, compared with 29 percent in 2006, according to the Pew Research Center.

“President Obama has hoped that being more open to China would make them a more responsible nation. It has not worked,” Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), who is seeking the GOP nomination, said in a speech to business leaders last month in Charleston, S.C. “We can no longer succumb to the illusion that more dialogue with China’s current rulers will narrow the gap in values and interests that separates us. . . . It is up to our next president to correct the errors of our current one.”

Officials at the White House and in Beijing have rolled their eyes over much of the campaign-trail rhetoric. It’s easy for Republican front-runner Donald Trump to harangue China for stealing U.S. jobs or for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a candidate for the Democratic nomination, to criticize the trade imbalance.

Just wait until one of these critics takes office, the White House thinking goes, and realizes just how important China is to the fortunes of the United States. Even Obama talked tough on China while campaigning before moderating his stance once in office.

White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes chalked up much of the criticism from GOP candidates to hyperbole that overstates “the degree of Chinese responsibility for certain things.” He emphasized the “bipartisan support” over previous Democratic and Republican administrations for a policy of engagement with China since the opening of relations more than four decades ago.

At the same time, Rhodes acknowledged the growing concerns on Capitol Hill and in the business community, warning that “China needs to be mindful that its activities don’t undermine its standing here in the United States.”

Protesters wave U.S. flags during a pro-Tibet march as Chinese President Xi Jinping attends events nearby in Seattle, Washington. (David Ryder/Reuters)

Part of Obama’s message to Xi, Rhodes added, is that “if you are not taking steps to address some of these concerns as it relates to particular trade irritants or cyber activities, you risk eroding the support for the U.S.-China relationship that comes from the business community; you risk inviting responses from Congress.”

The issue is complicated. When the Chinese stock market tumbled in August, leading to fresh concerns over Beijing’s handling of its economy, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker adopted the strongest stance among the GOP presidential candidates. He suggested Obama cancel Xi’s visit to send a message over the economic issues, as well as the cyber, maritime and currency tensions.

But the message landed with a thud in Iowa, whose farmers export millions of dollars of soybeans and other agriculture to China each year. Walker ended his campaign this week amid plummeting poll numbers.

Still, China is unlikely to fade as a campaign issue. Organized labor has railed against China’s currency ma­nipu­la­tion, saying it has contributed to trade imbalances. Congressional Democrats, including Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), who is slated to take over as party leader in 2017, are pushing for legislation that would punish China over currency ma­nipu­la­tion.

And although Hillary Rodham Clinton has not spoken much about China on the campaign trail, her tenures as first lady in the 1990s and as secretary of state during Obama’s first term were marked by memorable moments in confronting Beijing.

In 1995, she spoke out forcefully on women’s rights during a speech at the U.N. World Conference on Women in Beijing. And in 2010, her declaration during a security conference in Hanoi that the United States would intervene in growing regional tensions over China’s bid to gain more control in the South China Sea signaled a shift in the Obama administration’s tone.

A year later, the administration announced a “pivot to Asia,” a bid to refocus foreign policy attention to the region that Beijing interpreted as an effort to contain China. Beijing has responded by launching several major regional economic initiatives, including an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and by building artificial islands in the South China Sea, which analysts said will probably be used as military outposts.

“There is an argument in the region that I hear frequently from allies and partners that China is consolidating what it can now because they expect a tougher administration in 2017,” said Michael Green, who served as senior Asia director in the George W. Bush administration. “That’s a hard thing to prove, but you frequently hear that hypothesis in Tokyo and Canberra and Delhi and elsewhere.”