A Fresh Start for China

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with President Barack Obama in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, DC, January 26, 2009. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with President Barack Obama in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, DC, January 26, 2009. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

by Orville Schell

Originally published in Time, February 12, 2009

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is headed to China. The inclusion of Beijing on her first trip overseas suggests that she and the new U.S. President intend to make the People's Republic of China a keystone in the arch of America's foreign relations. Paradoxically, Clinton will be aided by the fact that President Barack Obama has never been to Beijing, has previously said relatively little about China and is thus viewed there as something of a blank slate. Although that has caused anxiety among Chinese officials, it may also be a virtue.

Somehow, the "China question" managed to slumber largely undisturbed throughout the presidential election—which was probably just as well. It meant that Obama and Clinton could start thinking about China anew, without being encumbered by too many pre-existing political commitments.

Alas, it was into this unfilled void that the then unenthroned U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner, stumbled. In a written response to Senate questions, he suggested that China had been manipulating its currency. (Some in the U.S. have long alleged that by supposedly keeping its currency undervalued against the dollar, China gives its exporters an unfair advantage in American markets.) Since Geithner's was the new Administration's first real comment on relations with Beijing, Chinese leaders reacted as if a hostile shot had been fired across their bow. But Obama then called China's President Hu Jintao, evidently assuring him that the statement did not represent the spirit of future U.S. policy, and the incident passed.

China's reaction to Geithner, however, gave a hint of the importance that Beijing attaches to relations with the U.S. and of how jumpy officials are about them. So before something else intrudes, now is the time to ponder what the foundation of a comprehensive new architecture for Sino-U.S. relations might look like.

The reality is that the two countries have morphed into a state of co-dependence that makes separation virtually impossible. Because the Chinese are dependent on American consumers to buy their goods (the U.S. had a $246 billion trade deficit with China as of November 2008) and because the U.S. is dependent on China to fund its $10.7 trillion debt, economics bind us indissolubly together. But we are also connected in one other way. Both the U.S. and China are rich in coal as an energy source and collectively produce upwards of 50% of the world's annual emission of greenhouse gases. Unless the two nations can find a way to collaborate in confronting the challenge of climate change, there can be no global solution to it. Why? Because a molecule of carbon dioxide emitted in Beijing or New York is now everyone's problem and will help derange climate patterns for all.

There is, however, a hopeful double paradox within this daunting challenge. For the first time in recent history, the U.S. and China find themselves with a demonstrably common interest. Equally significant, as the self-confidence and influence of the U.S. waned under the Bush Administration, the Sino-U.S. playing field has become more level than ever before. When it comes to climate change, we are both sinners before the Lord. This state of parity, however accidentally it may have been arrived at, presents a new psychological climate where the kind of equal partnership for which the Chinese have long yearned seems possible.

So when Clinton goes to China, questions to do with climate change must be at the top of the agenda. For example: Where can we cooperate on energy efficiency? Can the U.S. and China find ways to jointly profit from the development of low-carbon economies? Currencies, Tibet, human rights, Taiwan and other important questions should not be forgotten. But a new united front to address climate issues would help bolster the larger edifice of Sino-U.S. relations, making it easier to deal with these other contentious issues.

Even the most artful U.S.-China policy will never satisfy those in China who continually dwell on past slights and grievances or alter the fact that we have very different and contradictory political systems. But a significant collaboration on climate change could go a long way to stabilizing the most important bilateral relationship in the world today. It would demonstrate the kind of leadership that has been missing from the U.S. of late and which the international community increasingly, and with good reason, expects from a rising China.

Sino-U.S. joint leadership on climate change would not only reassure the world that the challenge of global warming could be met. If done with diplomatic skill, it could also help create the basis for a new and very different kind of partnership between these two great nations.

Orville Schell, a China scholar, is director of the Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations.