The year 2013 brings a combination of continuity and change to the US-China relationship. Here in Washington, President Obama has been reelected to serve a second term but his cabinet will bring in new leadership, particularly on foreign policy issues. In China, the National People’s Congress is meeting to complete that nation’s transition process. Beijing is expected to appoint new leaders to succeed State Councilor Dai Bingguo and Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, two positions of great interest to the United States. The new foreign policy teams taking shape in Washington and Beijing are sure to continue the progress achieved under their predecessors.
In the United States, the Obama administration will continue to follow the China strategy established in the President’s first term. Over the past four years President Obama has pursued a nuanced and balanced approach to the U.S.-China relationship. Where the President has seen opportunities for win-win cooperation with China, he has not hesitated to pursue them. Where U.S. and Chinese interests have conflicted, the President has not hesitated to push back on behalf of the American people, American values or American companies. Most importantly, President Obama has not allowed problems in one area of the relationship to undermine cooperation in others, nor has he allowed U.S. hopes for bilateral cooperation to hold him back from getting tough where needed. To make this intricate balancing act possible, the President has made high-level communication with China a top priority. In his first term, President Obama met with General Secretary Hu Jintao on an almost quarterly basis.
President Obama is dedicating significant time and resources to U.S.-China relations because he recognizes that this bilateral relationship could not be more important for global peace and prosperity. That is one of the reasons why the administration under Secretary Clinton’s leadership made the strategic decision to rebalance U.S. foreign policy from the Middle East to the Asia Pacific. The Asia-Pacific rebalance signifies a realization that it is time for the United States to dedicate more of its diplomatic, financial and security resources toward the opportunities of the future. We can expect new Secretary of State John Kerry and other new members of the President’s foreign policy team to continue moving forward with the broad contours of this strategy.
In Beijing, some observers have expressed concern that the U.S. rebalance is an attempt to contain a rising China. This is not the case. In reality, the rebalance aims to shape a regional order that will actually enable China’s peaceful rise. As General Secretary Xi Jinping expressed on his last visit to Washington, history tells us that the rise of a new great power often leads to destabilization and conflict. In the U.S. view, the best way to avoid confrontation is to create an environment of predictable stability for all players in the region, including China. Recently Secretary Panetta invited the PLA Navy to participate in RIMPAC 2014, the multinational Pacific Rim military exercise that occurs every other year. That type of inclusive cooperation is exactly what the rebalance aims to foster.
In terms of global challenges, the United States is making great efforts to cooperate with China on energy and climate change, and those efforts will continue. In President Obama’s first term the United States and China launched new projects such as the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center (CERC) and the U.S.-China Shale Gas Resources Initiative. U.S. and Chinese leaders meet frequently to discuss the possibilities for deepening joint action on combatting global climate change, and we hope those discussions will lead to new progress in international forums such as the Montreal Protocol.
To be sure, the U.S.-China relationship will continue to have its share of tensions in the years to come. On the economic front, many U.S. enterprises are still concerned about their ability to compete with Chinese counterparts on a level playing field. Last year the President created a special task force within the White House to address this issue, and we have seen the U.S. Trade Representative file a number of cases at the WTO. Protecting intellectual property is also a major concern for the United States. Growing U.S. concerns over cyber espionage are now out in the open and could prove to be one of the most contentious issues in the bilateral relationship. President Obama will continue to do everything in his power to enforce trade rules and protect American economic security. Those enforcement actions will not always be welcomed by Beijing.
Regional security will provide another set of challenges. The first few months of 2013 have already produced major flashpoints in the East China Sea and on the Korean peninsula. The new foreign policy teams in the United States, China, Japan, South Korea and other nations around the region will have no time to waste this year. The stakes and the challenges are simply too high.
Although 2013 brings many new leadership appointments, we already have strong frameworks in place to support frequent communication between U.S. and Chinese leaders on all of these challenging issues. One of our biggest successes in U.S.-China relations in recent years is the rich network of track one and track two dialogues that we have established on many important topics. Those existing connections will serve us well, in this leadership term and beyond.
John Podesta is Chair of the Center for American Progress.