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|The new secretary of state faces tough
challenges when she visits Beijing – the US needs China's help in so
The debate about whether to engage China is over – we are now about
20 years into a common-law marriage. The debate about whether China
will join the international community also is over. Beijing has been
signing up for multilateral forums as if they were going out of
style. The great challenge for US secretary of state Hillary
Clinton, when she visits Beijing from Friday, is to influence China
to play a larger role in preventing global catastrophes in these
areas: the economy, nuclear proliferation, climate change and
China deserves high marks for acting quickly on the global economic
crisis. Beijing turned on a dime from trying to cool down its
economy last summer to enacting potentially potent stimulus measures
over recent months. Some measures, such as a plan to invest $123bn
in universal health insurance over the next three years, could lay
the foundation for a social safety net that would help establish a
broad Chinese middle class, which would support the growth of the
American middle class by fostering a robust market for US exports.
Moreover, working with the International Monetary Fund, Beijing is
helping to bail out Pakistan, whose economic stability the US is
concerned about, to put it mildly.
The politically challenging issues of currency, intellectual
property protection and the potential "Buy American" provisions of
the US economic stimulus package remain and could get worse, but
they have proved manageable through regular consultation with
Congress and steady dialogue with Beijing.
On efforts to prevent potential nuclear catastrophe, China's record
is mixed. Beijing is playing an invaluable leadership role in
hosting the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear programme and
has been instrumental in breaking specific logjams. But Beijing
still cares much more about stability on the Korean peninsula than
it does about North Korea's nukes (which are not aimed at China,
after all). Whether and under what conditions Pyongyang would give
up its weapons, and how much arm-twisting China would be willing to
do, are unclear. Clinton is sure to make a strong pitch for more
Chinese pressure, but here Beijing and Washington have at least
agreed on a path forward.
In contrast, on nuclear catastrophe scenario number two – Iran's
programme – China and the US sharply diverge. China repeatedly has
blocked US efforts in the UN security council to impose tough
sanctions on Tehran. Beijing does not want to see a Middle East made
even more dangerous by complicated nuclear dynamics, but China's
immediate and pressing lust for energy supplies will leave its
anti-proliferation policies compromised at best. Prospects for
Clinton to make headway on this issue seem dim.
That brings us to climate change. Global warming will demand the
most creative and intense diplomacy the Obama team has to offer.
China's energy demand is mind-blowing in scale. From 2001 through
2007, China's consumption increased by an amount equal to energy use
in all of Latin America, according to Asia energy expert Mikkal
China is firmly opposed to hard targets for reducing its ballooning
greenhouse gas emissions, arguing, with reason, that the west caused
the global warming crisis and bears the burden of responsibility.
But without China on board, the world will not be able to reduce
greenhouse gases to the level that scientists think is necessary to
avoid catastrophic effects.
You know things are bad when avian flu seems like a bright spot. But
there's reason for guarded optimism that China will handle outbreaks
responsibly: a Chinese doctor heads the World Health Organisation,
more money is headed for rural healthcare in China, and Beijing
learned from the Sars crisis earlier this decade that the
potentially devastating effect of a pandemic is exacerbated when its
early cases are covered up.
What tack, then, should Clinton take in her first trip abroad as
secretary of state to maximise the chances of progress in preventing
these global catastrophes?
First, while making plain our differences – on human rights, China's
military buildup, currency, Darfur, Tibet and other issues – she
should make clear that China is a strategic partner in crucial areas
and that the US welcomes China's integration into the international
system as a responsible, respected and engaged stakeholder. She also
should pave the way for new, bold initiatives based on "strategic
collaboration". One potentially fruitful area is clean-energy
research, with the US and China, or a group of the major energy
consumers, joining forces.
In her Senate confirmation hearing, Clinton indicated that in
dealing with other nations she would maintain her focus on the
entire relationship and not allow single issues to set the tone and
direction. That is the right approach, but that does not prevent her
from prioritising US interests around these four challenges in her
talks in Beijing. It is in the nature of our deeply interdependent
relationship to have a long list of issues that we want action on
from China, but we are likely to see more progress if we can be
clear about which are most important.
Negotiating with China is never easy. But neither China nor the US
can prevent these catastrophes alone.