Perhaps Secretary of State Madeleine Albright anticipated this when she visited China recently. Secretary Albright sharply criticized China's human rights policies. China's dictators, who are accustomed to hearing mild criticism - or silence - from any American administration, may have been surprised.
The debate is liable to intensify now amid allegations that China stole American nuclear-missile technology. The alleged espionage is a reminder that, although the U.S. and China are partners in many ways, including many economic ways, the two countries are not allies. The U.S. and China have different goals, and different ways of meeting them.
For decades, American policy toward China has seemed to have a subtext: "There are so many Chinese, and if we try to assert our will, they'll shut us out. So we might as well make concessions, and hope to get at least a little of our agenda in return. It's better than nothing, and it might pay off big-time later."
That has been the policy of both political parties in the U.S. The debate on China reveals all kinds of ideological and political differences - but this isn't one of them. Republican or Democrat, whoever's in the White House pursued this policy, the opposition criticized it.
In the heat of the current debate, neither side may remember that. But you may want to.