Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Centerpoint.
The recent confrontation between a U.S. naval vessel and five Chinese ships in international waters south of Hainan Island provides a timely reminder that managing our relationship with China will be one of the major challenges facing the Obama administration. Secretary Clinton's Asia policy speech on February 13 and her subsequent visit to Beijing represented an excellent start. In her speech, she emphasized the importance of having a positive, cooperative relationship with China and expressed pleasure that mid-level military discussions were about to resume. Translating these sentiments into effective policies will require skill, fortitude, and strategic vision.
Our enormous bilateral agenda can be addressed most effectively by working in harmony with China. First and foremost, of course, is the need to coordinate our approaches toward the global financial crisis. To the extent our respective actions are complementary, we can find ways to shorten and lessen the severity of the downturn.
Among other critical concerns, the most active and dangerous one is the North Korean nuclear issue, where Sino-U.S. cooperation is vital. On the positive side, we have an important national interest in reinforcing the current improved climate in the Taiwan strait. As we move toward more active engagement in East Asian regional institutions, we should seek to accomplish this in ways that enhance mutual confidence between Washington and Beijing. Our position in East Asia will be strengthened if we can demonstrate to the countries located on China's periphery that our role eases, rather than exacerbates, problems.
Looking down the road, we need to strengthen consultative mechanisms with China on a host of problems, including energy and the environment. The world will look to China and the United States as the two countries whose leadership, or the lack thereof, can make the decisive difference on climate change. Effective cooperation on this issue would make it easier for both countries to coordinate their positions on how to restructure global economic and political institutions to make them more relevant to current realities. Seizing these opportunities will not be easy. The faceoff in the South China Sea illustrates this point. The key determinant will be whether leaders in Washington and Beijing have the vision, and devote the energy needed, to forge a constructive Sino-U.S. bilateral relationship.