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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.

Because the United States and China are now the world's largest users of coal and together are responsible for almost 50 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, there can be no solution to global warming without the active, joint leadership of Washington and Beijing.

And here's a bonus: by aggressively collaborating to develop, use and market sustainable energy technologies, the United States and China will also benefit from the new intellectual property, start-ups, industries and jobs that are destined to grow out of such a post-IT revolution. Moreover, if the United States and China forge a new partnership, they will also find their ties suddenly cushioned by a new common interest that could shape the future course of our relationship as much as the epic breakthrough following President Nixon and Henry Kissinger's trip to Beijing in 1972.

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

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One of the biggest impediments to building a strong relationship with China is that Americans know so little about the place, its history and its challenges.

Few realize that China has become our third-largest market for exports, or that U.S. sales to China have increased by more than 300 percent since 2000, a growth 10 times greater than that with any of our other large trading partners. Many Americans are unaware that the share of the U.S. global trade deficit with East Asia, including China, has declined from 75 percent to 49 percent over the past decade, or that most of the goods that U.S. firms manufacture in China are sold there, not exported to the United States.

Most Americans also fail to recognize how much U.S. and Chinese interests overlap in critical areas such as global growth, regional security, nuclear proliferation, energy security, food and product safety, environmental protection and climate change. Talking and listening to China is a way to advance our nation's vital interests.

The Strategic Economic Dialogue started by the Bush administration proves that joint discussions work. In four sessions over the past two years, cabinet officials from both nations achieved important breakthroughs, such as the agreements to negotiate a bilateral investment treaty to protect investors in both countries, engage in joint efforts on food and safety investigations, and collaborate on converting biomass resources into fuel.

Time and again, we have seen the beneficial results of engagement -- and the damage done by belligerence. I hope that President-elect Obama will continue the conversation with China, strengthening habits of cooperation and building mutual trust and confidence.

Carla A. Hills served as U.S. Trade Representative from 1989-93 and is the chairman and chief executive of Hills & Company, a Washington-based international consulting firm.

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The Obama administration will inherit ties with China that are generally good and in some areas deepening. Of notable exception are military relations.

In October, Beijing suspended military contacts with the United States after the Bush administration moved forward with portions of a Taiwan arms sales package in limbo since 2001. This is the fifth time since 1989 that either the United States or China has suspended or postponed military contacts.

Such suspensions are regrettable. The two defense establishments had recently made progress on important initiatives such as establishing a defense "hotline" to avoid miscommunication during a crisis, but the latest turn of events underscores yet again the fragility of military relations.

It serves neither Beijing's nor Washington's interests to halt military contacts at every diplomatic bump. The stakes are just too high. There are many areas where the two militaries could be cooperating, and there are significant areas of disagreement and tension between the two that demand management.

Beijing will probably end the current moratorium on military contacts some time after the Obama administration takes office. But doing so will not dispel the miasma of mutual distrust that serves as a backdrop to the military relationship, and dealing head on with this suspicion will be the key to all other possibilities. After next Jan. 20, Beijing will have a new opportunity to re-engage its U.S. military counterparts on critical issues such as strategic nuclear doctrine. President-elect Obama has promised to make engagement, dialogue and good old-fashioned listening central parts of his foreign-policy approach. In dealing with the Chinese military, that philosophy will be put to the test. Let's hope that both sides can soon get on with the important business at hand.

David M. Finkelstein is vice president of CNA, a non-profit research institute in Alexandria, and the director of its China studies program.

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