11/08/2012 12:35 pm ET Updated Jan 08, 2013

It's China, Stupid

A nation facing tough challenges at home and abroad.

Domestically, a country bitterly divided: red states (rural, poorer, conservative) versus blue states (urban, richer and liberalizing); and growing resentment by the "99 percent" against the "one percenters" who disproportionately control both wealth and power. Huge problems, including: budget deficits; an aging population in need of a reliable social safety net; an over-reliance on imported oil; and the seldom remarked upon, but nonetheless pressing, challenge of climate change. Throw in a toxic mix of ethnic divisions and corruption for good measure.

Abroad, an equally grim picture: A rival superpower that often seems as much adversary as friend; neighbors that accuse you of bullying and grumble about trade and other grievances; and global challenges such as non-proliferation, terrorism, the Arab Spring and a looming double-dip global recession requiring urgent attention.

At this decisive moment in the nation's future, a vital political choice must be made. Who will lead? And with what priorities? Will they be able to unify the country, or will the challenges and divisions overwhelm them and their capacity to govern? Will the people deem the new leadership legitimate, or will they deny them a mandate and demand fundamental political reforms?

The nation, of course, is not the United States, but the People's Republic of China.

Over the next few days, China will slowly lift the veil of secrecy that has shrouded what appears to have been a contentious leadership transition. More than 2,000 delegates to the 18th Party Congress have gathered in Beijing to choose the next president and premier of China, as well as the other members of the elite standing committee of the politburo.

Even without the statistical talents of Nate Silver, the Chinese people already know that the party will anoint Xi Jinping as the next president and Li Keqiang as the next premier. Xi and Li would probably happily trade their challenges for those confronting newly reelected President Obama and Vice President Biden, but that option is not on the table.

The world will learn more about Xi and those who will join him at the top of the Chinese Communist Party over the next week. President Xi and his team must decide whether they can tame any of the six dragons imperiling China's continued rise -- income inequality, demographics, energy, environment, ethnic unrest and corruption -- without also embracing bold political reforms, a point emphasized recently by The Economist.

Here in Washington, President Obama must figure out what kind of relationship he wants with China -- the world's second largest economy and home to one-fifth of humanity -- during his second term. The much ballyhooed "pivot" to Asia has faded from the U.S. political landscape almost as swiftly as it appeared on over-the-horizon radars at the departments of Defense and State. Asia has been pushed off the front pages again by events in the Middle East -- in Libya, civil war in Syria, and nuclear ambitions in Iran.

But this is only temporary. The logic behind the Obama Administration's "rebalancing" toward Asia remains sound. The balance of global economic, military and political power is shifting to the Asia-Pacific region. The United States is not an Asian country, but it is a Pacific power, and the U.S.-China relationship will likely define the 21st century. Absent close cooperation between Washington and Beijing, it is hard to see how either nation can successfully confront myriad challenges, from the pursuit of nuclear weapons by Iran and North Korea to growing violence and extremism in the Middle East to the threat of calamitous climate change.

For China to be an effective partner for the United States, it must tackle its own six internal dragons. A growing chorus of leaders, human rights defenders, and ordinary citizens believe China cannot get the job done unless the Communist Party embraces bold reforms -- protecting the rights of the people to criticize their government, to seek redress of grievances through rule of law, and to hold their government leaders more accountable for their actions.

Remembering that the most courageous champions for human rights in China don't reside along the banks of the Potomac, Washington should do all in its power -- quiet diplomacy, public jaw-boning, support for freedom of information, training for judges and journalists, educational exchanges, people-to-people cultural exchanges, socially responsible trade and investment -- to align itself with those in China defending human rights, and to nudge China's leaders down the path of political reform.