No one expects the secretary of state to play the leading role in U.S. policy toward the global economic crisis. For Hillary Clinton, on her first extended overseas tour as America's top diplomat, this poses something of a dilemma. The economy ranks second to none in U.S. relations with China, and in its ties with most other states, too. Much to the dismay of human rights groups, Clinton said just before her arrival in Beijing (Telegraph), that pressing China on Taiwan, Tibet, and human rights issues "can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crises."
Yet these issues along with China's vote on the U.N. Security Council, its leverage over North Korea, and a host of other issues all pose longstanding challenges that fall into Clinton's charge. Ironically, writes CFR President Emeritus Leslie H. Gelb, China is one of a small number of nations which may have preferred Barack Obama's predecessor (Daily Beast).
Be that as it may, the economic crisis has underscored the codependent nature of the U.S.-China relationship. China is the United States' second-largest trading partner and largest holder of U.S. debt at $ 1.7 trillion. Fears of trade protectionism have already begun to be voiced on both sides. Last month, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told the Senate before he was confirmed to the post that President Obama believes China is "manipulating" its currency. In December 2008, the United States brought a case against China to the World Trade Organization challenging an industrial policy that promotes sales of Chinese merchandise through prohibited export subsidies (PDF). China, meanwhile, reeling from a 17.5 percent fall in exports, has spoken out against the "Buy American" clause in the latest U.S. stimulus package.
Some China experts have suggested that climate change could become the centerpiece of U.S.-China relations under the Obama administration. A new Task Force report by Asia Society and Pew Center on Global Climate Change offers recommendations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions such as increased collaboration on deployment of new technologies to capture and sequester carbon emissions.
How some of these issues are handled will also depend on who will be the key person in Washington to lead U.S. policy on China. During the Bush administration, the Treasury Department took the lead with the Strategic Economic Dialogue. Now there is speculation that Clinton might prefer the State Department to take the lead with a broader agenda that includes energy, environment, and human rights, among others. Clinton says the departments are discussing division of responsibilities but signaled that the administration wanted "a more comprehensive, unified approach to the discussions" with the Chinese. Climate change may be added to this tug-of-war in Washington. CFR's Director for Asia Studies, Elizabeth C. Economy, says China views climate change as an economic issue, not an environmental issue, and therefore the State Department running that dialogue may not be very effective.
The new administration will also have to engage with China on the country's growing role in global affairs. China is already a key player in the Six-Party Talks on North Korea's denuclearization, and its relations with Iran, Myanmar, and Sudan make it an influential player in dealing with those regimes. Some experts say Chinese participation may be vital in the reconstruction of Afghanistan as well. Beijing, with the help of Shanghai Cooperation Organization, can support U.S. and NATO forces as they work to stabilize the country, says Hao Zheng, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Human rights remain a concern, though economic realities may blunt America's influence, experts say. China analysts at the Center for American Progress argue that it is in U.S. strategic interests (CSM) to confront human rights issues in China. However, Jerome Cohen, CFR's adjunct senior fellow for Asia studies, writes it could "seriously obstruct [cooperation], especially amid the Chinese government's increasing worries about the country's domestic political and social instability." (South China Morning Post)
It is unlikely the United States and China will become allies, but they both have a stake in maintaining good relations, say experts. They could build a relationship based on selective cooperation (Newsweek), complemented by an understanding to limit the fallout from their disagreements, writes CFR President Richard N. Haass.