US SECRETARY OF STATE Hillary Clinton is off to China. Her decision to make her first overseas trip to Asia, particularly China, was a smart one and, if done with aplomb, could yield enormous returns for the administration of US President Barack Obama as it attempts to re-establish world leadership.
That Clinton chose to go to Asia now, when the US State Department remains unsettled — with no ambassador in Beijing, many old officials having departed or leaving, and many new appointees still unseated — attests to her determination to stake out Asia as her own area.
What she brings to this task is openness and an eagerness to construct a new architecture for Sino-US relations. But, even as a host of other issues come into play, strengthening this most important of bilateral relationships requires a new, underlying common interest. Paradoxically, the challenge of climate change is a good place to look.
The Chinese government should not underestimate Clinton’s and Obama’s commitment to this issue. As she said in a pre-trip speech at the Asia Society in New York: “Collaboration on clean energy and greater efficiency offers a real opportunity to deepen the overall US-Chinese relationship.”
Publicly acknowledging that the US “has been the largest historic emitter of greenhouse gases,” she declared that the US “must lead efforts to cut harmful emissions and build a lower carbon-economy.” China has long waited to hear that.
So Clinton has set the stage for exploring a possible joint venture with China on meeting the challenge of climate change. The receptiveness of the Chinese will reflect the degree to which both countries advance the discussion from theory to practice, as well as stabilizing their relations.
Until now, China has taken a wait-and-see attitude, as officials waited to see who Obama would appoint to deal with China and what the new emissaries would say. This caution is understandable. But what seemed to be missing in China was a full recognition of just how uncertain things have become in the US, and how, with a new president, almost everything is in an unprecedented state of flux.
By being more proactive, China might have been able to influence the policies that ultimately come from the US side. For, when it comes to China, Clinton and Obama are yizhang baizhi, “a sheet of blank paper.” With Clinton in Beijing, the time is now to begin sketching out a common US-Chinese future in a deliberate and thoughtful way.
In her talk, Clinton evoked the ancient Chinese aphorism Tongchuan gongji: “When on a common boat, cross the river peacefully together.” This alludes to an ancient episode in which soldiers from the warring states of Wu and Yue found themselves on the same boat on a river in a storm and agreed to put down their arms to make a common passage. It is an apt metaphor for the situation in which the US and China now find themselves: on a planet in the process of being dangerously warmed by our own runaway progress.
It is inevitable and right that Clinton will bring up Tibet, human rights and other contentious issues. But all evidence suggests that she would like to do so in the context of a re-formatted US-China relationship that places collaboration at its heart.
China’s leadership thus would be gravely mistaken to treat climate change as a subsidiary issue, much less as a problem imposed on developing countries like China to impede their economic progress. China should take up Clinton’s call for collaboration on climate change, which could possibly become a paradigm-shifting issue in Sino-US relations, much as the united front against the Soviet Union did in 1972, when US president Richard Nixon and national security advisor Henry Kissinger went to China to begin normalizing relations.