The Case for a Really Long Engagement

By Thomas J. Christensen
Sunday, November 30, 2008

Few diplomatic relationships are deeper or more complex than that between the United States and China. While the Pentagon draws up contingency plans for a potential conflict with China, U.S. businesses are investing billions there, and American consumers stock their wardrobes, toy chests, garages and kitchens with products "Made in China." How should the Obama administration handle these delicate ties? In the run-up to a Dec. 5 conference on "China and the Next Administration," sponsored by Outlook and CNA, a non-partisan think tank, we posed that question to four specialists.

One area in which President-elect Obama should not push for change is China policy. Simply put, President Bush's strategy on U.S.-China relations has been a success.

Over the past eight years, Washington has tamped down rising tensions between Taiwan and mainland China by promoting a strong but moderate Taiwan, rejecting any unilateral changes in the status quo across the Taiwan Strait and demanding that the two sides settle their differences peacefully. Meanwhile, the market for U.S. products in China has improved markedly, in part because of ongoing U.S.-Chinese economic talks such as the Strategic Economic Dialogue led by Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr.

Even more important, U.S.-China diplomacy has moved beyond managing problems between the two sides to focus on coordinating responses to problems around the world. That was an important and innovative step for both countries to take. The U.S.-China Senior Dialogue on political and security affairs, led by Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte, addresses such global issues. Our regional assistant secretaries of state and their Chinese counterparts also hold intensive discussions. Ten years ago, officials in these positions probably wouldn't even have known each other's names.

As Amb. Christopher R. Hill, the lead U.S. negotiator in the six-party talks on Korean denuclearization, recently noted, solutions for many global problems -- from North Korea to Darfur -- will require coordination between Washington and Beijing. President-elect Obama should, therefore, build upon, not transform, these current trends.

Thomas J. Christensen, a professor at Princeton University, served as deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs from 2006-08. The views expressed here are his own.

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At the top of President-elect Obama's agenda should be a summit with President Hu Jintao to propose major collaboration between the United States and China. That could go a long way toward bringing the planet back from the brink of climate disaster.

As the global economy has cooled into recession and the Earth's atmosphere has continued to heat up, some officials have, understandably, been tempted to delay confronting climate change and focus solely on the economy. But to do so would be irresponsible in the extreme.

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