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New Year's Resolutions for the U.S.-China Relationship

The year 2009 could have been a decisive one for U.S.-China relations. A new, internationally popular American president brought with him a sense of optimism and possibility; the People's Republic of China celebrated its sixtieth anniversary, reminding the world of how far it has come since 1949. The two countries established a strategic and economic dialogue and played leading roles at a series of global summits dealing with critical issues like the economic crisis and climate change, as well as on the U.N. Security Council and other international governance bodies.

But coming out of this year of expectations, concrete results are hard to find. Although a new and more upbeat verbal framework for the China relationship is being used by both sides -- they seek a "positive, cooperative, and comprehensive" relationship--the relationship as a whole remains adequate but does not seem to have fundamentally improved. As a result, five critical issues in the relationship need to be addressed or readdressed in 2010, with an eye toward transforming the U.S.-China relationship into one that is truly "positive, cooperative, and comprehensive": capable of acknowledging and accommodating differing national interests and addressing the most critical world challenges.

First, both governments need to regroup and find a better approach for cooperating on addressing climate change. The widely anticipated failure of this year's conference on climate change at Copenhagen to produce a legally binding deal on emissions has been variously blamed on China and the United States. What's clear, at the least, is that the two countries are the most critical players in any international deal.

Their interactions at Copenhagen under the pressure of that spotlight and deadline underscored tensions around the issue rather than building new trust. At its worst, this year's failed attempt at climate cooperation may reveal destructive attitudes that persist among leaders in both countries: in China, fear that the United States and other developed countries are seeking to undermine China's rise, and in the United States, suspicion that China's ambitions do not tend toward its claims of "peaceful rise" as a "responsible stakeholder" in the world's fate. Eroding these suspicions and building mutual trust on this issue must be high on both countries' agendas in 2010. That by itself will not be enough to produce a comprehensive climate change agreement, but, without greater mutual trust, an agreement will be impossible to reach.

Second, despite the fracas on both sides of the Pacific over currency valuation, trade imbalances, and China's large holdings of U.S. government debt, China and the United States have not made significant moves to make their economic interdependence work better for both countries. In 2010, the two countries must honestly assess whether they view the status quo as problematic or somehow advantageous, and act accordingly. In November, Professors Niall Ferguson of Harvard and Moritz Schularick of the Free University in Berlin, who describe the current relationship as "Chimerica," challenged President Obama to decide "whether to slay it or to try to keep it alive." That may be a false choice, but there are undoubtedly major choices that have to be made to assure that economic interdependence between these powerhouses truly advances both countries' interests equitably and efficiently.

Third, the U.S. government must decide about the extent to which it wants to make human rights a diplomatic priority. The past year witnessed the Chinese government taking several high profile moves against leading reformers and activists like Xu Zhiyong and Liu Xiaobo. In the case of Xu, a leading lawyer and reformer, various media outlets reported that private pressure by the U.S. government and influential figures outside the government was behind his release. However, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's controversial remarks before her first trip to Beijing stressed that the Obama administration believes that human rights concerns are secondary and potentially "interfere" with addressing other, more pressing issues, while months later President Obama said that he raised these issues in his summit meeting with President Hu. The Obama administration should resolve these contradictions in 2010.

Fourth, the United States must determine what place hot-button sovereignty issues like Tibet and Xinjiang will assume in dealings between the two countries. The U.S. approach to Tibet in 2009 is instructive. President Obama delayed his first meeting with the Dalai Lama in what was widely described as a move to curry favor with the Chinese before Obama's November trip to China. Meeting criticism of this decision, Ambassador Jon Huntsman responded that "the President specifically noted the importance of respect for the rights of ethnic and religious minorities in China--like the Tibetans--and then called for the early resumption of dialogue between the Chinese government and representatives of the Dalai Lama." This balancing act seems unsustainable; the United States should be prepared to address these issues more comprehensively in 2010.

Fifth, the two countries must make serious progress on their commitment to nuclear non-proliferation, with specific focus on Iran and North Korea. What this means, in effect, is that the United States must press China to take a firm position on Iranian nuclear development and to continue the shift begun in 2009 toward discouraging Pyongyang's program. China has complicated relationships with both countries--and in the past year expanded its economic ties to Iran, particularly in the energy sector--but it will be a pivotal player in addressing this essential issue. Each country needs to be candid with the other about what it sees as its national interests and concerns regarding both North Korea and Iran, and be prepared to try to address the other party's interests as fully as possible in ways commensurate with the world dangers that nuclear proliferation poses.

These five issues show that despite a year filled with overtures, visits, and joint statements, urgent problems still loom large for the U.S.-China relationship. And these unresolved issues will define U.S.-China affairs in 2010. We may remember 2009 as a time of florid feet-dragging; here's to 2010 being the year when the United States and China get down to business.

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