12/20/2013 10:04 am ET Updated Feb 19, 2014

Top Foreign Policy Challenge Heading Into 2014? It's China

It's the end of the year, which means the traditional reveal of top 10 lists. If there were such a list for foreign policy concerns facing the United States as we prepare to ring in 2014, it would almost certainly be led by areas in which the nation's foreign policy has been predominantly focused in recent months -- and where Secretary of State John Kerry has invested so much of his time and energies -- mainly Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

As I have discussed in previous columns here at The Huffington Post, each of these areas is critically important to U.S. foreign policy interests and concerns.

But foreign policy priority No. 1 is, without question, China, even if recent news headlines and Secretary Kerry's travel itinerary might suggest otherwise. Make no mistake: The relationship between the U.S. and China is the most important foreign policy relationship in the world, and the question as to whether these two superpowers can coexist peacefully and collaboratively may be the supreme political challenge of our time.

Admittedly, it's awfully difficult in the context of continual challenges in the Middle East to consider China as our nation's top foreign policy concern, but the reasons for doing so are simply too many to ignore. China is well into a significant transition in leadership with new President Xi Jinping quickly consolidating power and calling for a comprehensive national renewal driven by landmark economic reforms and military investments.

China currently boasts the world's second-largest economy, which is soon to become the largest in a matter of a few years, and the world's largest military force, the People's Liberation Army. Under President Xi, who took office a little over a year ago with the promise of helping more Chinese citizens achieve the "Chinese dream," the country's confidence is rising as broad-based market reforms and anti-corruption measures have begun to have a positive impact.

As it strives to restore its national glory and greatness, though, China faces formidable challenges and few friends and allies to help the country combat them. Those challenges include massive environmental degradation, considerable internal dissent and profound demographic changes -- including an aging population and substantial decline in young labor due to the country's decades-old one-child policy -- that pose a serious risk to China's future economic prosperity and political stability.

Here in the West, there's been considerable chatter about China transitioning to a more democratic society, but that talk is, sadly, unlikely. True: The country's leaders have embraced a certain amount of economic change and the development of social organizations in civil society, and they have also signaled a willingness to cut the role of state enterprises in the economy. Despite all of this, though, they are determined to maintain the communist party's monopoly on power.

Meanwhile, tensions continue to build between China and the U.S. over such important issues as a nuclear North Korea, which remains China's most important ally, Taiwanese independence, human rights, cyber-attacks, data theft and, most recently, maritime security in the South China Sea, which Beijing contends it has sovereignty over.

Despite these and other contentious issues, America's interests often align quite closely with those of China. Indeed, some eye-popping statistics reflect several key areas of cooperation between our two nations. Flights between the U.S. and China leave every 24 minutes. There are roughly 200,000 Chinese students studying in America and about 26,000 American students studying in China. Our economies jointly account for one-third of the global economy. Together we possess one-quarter of the world's population and generate one-fifth of global trade.

These interconnections are extremely powerful, and our two countries would be wise to build upon them instead of settling for saber rattling and nationalist propaganda that prevent progress from being made on some very tough issues. This isn't to say that we can solve all of these issues quickly. We may not actually solve any of them quickly. But recognizing areas of potential collaboration is key to successfully managing these points of conflict.

Equally important is engaging on all levels of society. Just as the ping-pong players of the early 1970s helped thaw U.S.-China relations and pave the way for President Nixon's historic visit to China, we must seek ways to work together on a person-to-person level and across common interests that span the military, agriculture, commerce and culture, education and the environment, and information technology, all of which demand constant attention.

While we do not always agree, neither the U.S. nor China wants a confrontational relationship. Simply agreeing to manage the relationship and engage with one another would represent monumental progress in preventing conflict and ensuring durable world stability.

Lee H. Hamilton is Professor of Practice, Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; Director, Center on Congress at Indiana University. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.