2012 Presidential Debate
Romney and Obama at the previous debate in Hempstead, New York. Reuters/Mike Segar

President Barack Obama and former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney will face off in Boca Raton, Fla., Monday for the final debate of a series of three. This one is dedicated to foreign policy, a theme which has surfaced in the previous encounters but will be the sole focus this time. The election will be, most analysts say, contested mainly on the terrain of the economy rather than on foreign policy, which takes a back seat to the more pressing issues of how to tackle unemployment and foster economic recovery.

But when discussing foreign policy in America today, there is one issue larger than any other: the rise of China, and what the place of the United States will be in a world where China could be the biggest economy in as little as a decade. China’s relationship with the United States has already come up in the previous debates, and will undoubtedly be addressed by both candidates again tonight.

President Obama, who has been to China in 2009, is generally respected by the Chinese population for being a pragmatic leader with a sense of vision. His decisions to meet the Dalai Lama in 2010 and 2011, and to sell weapons to Taiwan, however, have put some strain on bilateral relations.

Chatter on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, shows that a number of users are particularly disappointed by President Obama’s China stance after the previous debate, which struck many as having shifted in recent months. Obama said he would get tough on China on jobs, prompting one user to say, “Obama is taking the same position as Romney to bring down the Chinese,” while another asked, “Who is Obama?”

China has also been watching Mitt Romney closely over the past debates. Romney was very critical of China and its economic policies, taking a hard line and accusing it of currency manipulation. He said he will “crack down on China when they cheat,” and promised “on day one [as president], [he] will label China a currency manipulator.”

This had Xinhua, China’s state media outlet, responding that “China perhaps would be forced to fight back, then [Romney’s] administration would very likely be on its way to a global trade war.”

But according to Jia Qingguo, a professor and dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, a win for Romney should not change U.S.-China relations radically.

“A new president will not significantly change the U.S. policy toward China because the relationship between the two countries has become so close and the interests have become so intertwined,” Jia said in an interview for the Council on Foreign Relations.

Still, most Chinese social media and mainstream press seem to stand behind President Obama’s re-election. China’s establishment may well want Obama to win a second term to maintain the status quo as much as possible. With China’s own political transition to a new president and prime minister in the works starting this November, limiting any uncertainties during this period is important to Chinese officials.

Still, while authorities are focused on their own agenda, to Chinese netizens the two candidates’ China rhetoric is beginning to wear thin. And with their country high on the agenda Monday, they will certainly be watching.