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Most of the foreign policy talk among 2016 Republican candidates has involved accusing President Obama of weakness. But on China and Russia, there are exceptions.
No one has talked more about China than Donald Trump. He faults U.S. leaders for failing to stop their counterparts in Beijing and other foreign capitals from fleecing America economically — views Mr. Trump is sure to repeat Oct. 28 at the CNBC Republican presidential candidate debate in Boulder, Colorado. He insists that his negotiating skills as a long-time real estate developer with considerable investments abroad will allow him to serve workers and business owners far better than those in charge now.
"Their leaders are incompetent — in some cases, stupid," Mr. Trump said in an interview. "What is happening now where we allow China to devalue their currency constantly, where we allow Japan to devalue. You know, they just did a big devaluation. Where we allow Mexico to really take so many of our companies. What they are doing is very smart, but very bad for our country."
On Russia, the exception is Sen. Rand Paul. While rivals advocate a tougher U.S. stance toward Vladimir Putin and his aggression in Crimea as well as in Syria, the Kentucky senator warns of the dangers of intervention. In particular, he criticized Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida for advocating a U.S.-enforced "no-fly" zone to prevent Russian bombing runs against opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"Terrible idea," Paul said. "We are really lucky he was never president during the Cold War. I mean, Reagan avoided a Cold War by, one, not setting red lines like that; continuing to have open communication with the Russians; having a strong enough defense to repel attack, and to worry the Russians. But we did not try to get involved with an altercation with them.
"You know who invited them there? Syria's invited them there, and so has Iraq," Paul said.
Apart from policy specifics, Russia and China both serve as rhetorical tools candidates use to draw contrasts with their rivals. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, for example, used the specter of foreign policy danger to explain why his rigorous nonstop campaigning would prepare him better than Mr. Trump's selective schedule.
"You've got to deal with Putin," he said.
On the other hand, former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, seeking to establish her foreign policy credentials, argued at last month's CNN Republican debate for the wisdom of not dealing with the one-time KGB officer.
"Having met Vladimir Putin, I wouldn't talk to him at all — we've talked way too much to him," Fiorina said. "What I would do immediately, I would begin rebuilding the Sixth Fleet, I would begin rebuilding the missile defense program in Poland, I would also conduct military exercises in the Baltic states, I'd probably send a few thousand more troops to Germany. Vladimir Putin would get the message."
She added: "Russia is a bad actor, but Vladimir Putin is someone we should not talk to because the only way he will stop is to sense strength and resolve on the other side — and we have all of that within our control."