US-China Relations: The Urgency Of Shared Challenges

Our guest blogger is Nina Hachigian, a Senior Vice President and Director for the California office at American Progress.

For decades now, American presidents have come to office having promised to be tougher on China than the last guy. Sometimes outside events — as in 2001, when an American EP3 airplane collided with a Chinese fighter — fuel a confrontational stance. It can take months or years for the relationship to return to the pragmatism that it always eventually does because of our deep interdependence with China. In the interim, neither American nor Chinese interests are well-served.

Today, Senators Obama and McCain are also under pressure to take a tougher position on China. A tanking U.S. economy, high gas prices and Chinese ascendancy make the politics of bashing China very tempting (even if, at the moment, Russia’s invasion of Georgia is making Beijing seem downright responsible by comparison) and we have serious policy differences with China — human rights, Tibet and currency, to name a few.

But the urgency of our shared challenges, like climate change and North Korea’s nuclear program, as well as the legacy of foreign policy debacles to which the next administration will need to devote much of its time, make it essential that the next president take a forward-looking and clear-eyed approach to China from day one, and not waste political capital or time we don’t have.

That is what I and my co-authors Michael Schiffer and Winny Chen argue in a new China report that the Center for American Progress released last week. We suggest that the US should move beyond the strategy of engaging China but “hedging” that we have followed for some 30 years. We propose the next administration instead take a “risk management” strategy that has three broad elements: embed China in international norms and institutions, use multilateral diplomacy to pressure China more effectively, and get our house in order at home.

The next administration has an unparalleled opportunity to engage China in a constructive partnership on climate change and energy security — an urgent national security challenge in the new century. The Bush Administration’s shortsighted energy policies and refusal to commit to reductions in greenhouse gases prevented us from capitalizing on our two nations’ shared objectives.

As the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world, the United States and China must work together to find solutions that will stave off the most severe consequences of climate change. The international effort to address global warming through a new treaty will not be successful without the full engagement of both countries.

In cases where China’s actions are at odds with US interests, the best approach is to try to isolate China, as diplomatically tricky as that is. While progress has hardly been linear, working through multilateral channels and building international pressure has at times effectively induced China to modify its stance on certain controversial issues like non-proliferation and North Korea.

Then there is what we need to do at home. Key to effective bilateral relations with China — and to getting others to cooperate with us vis a vis China — is reestablishing U.S. moral authority and leadership around the globe. Moreover, we will not be able to engage China from a position of strength, nor guarantee success in a globalized world, unless we better educate our kids, empower our workers and repair our fiscal position and our infrastructure.