11/13/2009 11:59 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's China Gamble

Earlier this week, as he prepared to leave for Asia, President Obama called the U.S. relationship with China a "strategic partnership." This new label is 100% certain to be met with accusations of appeasement and naivete by the not-always-so-loyal opposition. The neocons didn't like the concept of "strategic reassurance" that Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg unveiled a few weeks ago, and spoke about at a recent event, and they are going to like this even less. But using this term before his first visit to China is quite a smart move.

First, lets be clear about what President Obama said and the context in which he said it. Obama referred to a strategic partnership with China after also calling it a "competitor," and in the context of major transnational threats. China is the world's largest emitter of carbon, its most dynamic large economy (and owner of some $800 billion in US treasuries) and a nuclear power that neighbors North Korea and buys more oil from Iran than any other country. If China doesn't become our partner, then we are in trouble.

Unfortunately, China has not been a reliable partner so far on these global challenges. As I detail in a new report, China is very engaged in all the international institutions and diplomacy--and this is a big step in the right direction--but you can count on a couple of fingers the number of times China has taken proactive leadership on a global threat: (1) North Korea (but it took enormous and constant US pressure to get them to lead on the Six Party Talks) and (2) the avian and swine flu pandemics, but its active leadership has consisted of convening international conferences of health experts--important, but not exactly mind-blowing.

In fact, Beijing is not using its leverage with Iran to end its nuclear program, it has so far resisted agreeing to specific targets for its carbon emissions that would make a global deal to address climate change possible (though we haven't passed climate legislation yet either), and the steps China is taking to move to a domestic-led growth model that will address global economic imbalances are welcome, but too few and too slow.

What the Chinese will tell you is that they achieve a productive relationship by, first, developing trust with their counterpart and only then embarking on problem-solving together. This is exactly reverse, they will say, of Americans, who want to get things done and develop trust in the process. President Obama's is thus offering a modicum of pre-trust that the Chinese say they need. This is not weakness--it is clever diplomacy.

The Asia itinerary makes clear that China is only one element of U.S. Asia policy. President Obama is strengthening our traditional alliances in Japan and South Korea, and finally getting the US in the game of multilateral diplomacy in APEC and ASEAN on which China has been running the tables over the last eight years.

Ultimately, though, for the new label to match reality, the Chinese need to pony up--on climate, currency, Iran and Afghanistan, among other issues--to help solve these problems, reassure the US that they are indeed willing to act like partners and confirm that the political risk President Obama took in nomenclature was worthwhile. Moreover, tackling each of these threats is in China's own long-term interests.

If, over time, the Chinese do not cooperate more deeply, then "strategic partnership" could end up just a blip in the historical fluctuations of US-China terminology. But instead I hope that, in a few years, it turns out to be a positive, accurate and highly unremarkable description of our relationship with China.