China has arrived ... again. Beijing is growing confident enough in its own power and position in the world that it is increasingly and actively influencing world events. It can choose--and has chosen, in many cases--to play a helpful role in tackling shared threats. But China has also been standing its ground on disagreements with the United States. The two-day "Strategic & Economic Dialogue," which begins this morning in Washington, led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and their Chinese counterparts, is the first extended sit-down the two sides have had during the Obama administration. And it will set the tone for Sino-American relations in the coming years.
American officials returning to service after eight years out of power will find a very different China across the table. China's GDP has surged from some $1 trillion in 2000 to over $4 trillion today, with its foreign reserves expanding from $165 billion to some $2 trillion over the same period. Along with this growth have come more widespread interests and a great deal more self-assurance.
In some areas, China's new-found confidence has been welcome. Beijing sent two destroyers to help fight pirates off the Somali coast earlier this year. Although Beijing has responded overzealously to swine flu, quarantining non-symptomatic visitors in poor conditions, it is hosting an international conference on pandemic response later this summer--a positive sign of leadership in global health. Whether China will really turn the screws on North Korea remains to be seen, but it did recently vote for tough UN sanctions after Pyongyang's second nuclear test. Beijing has tried aggressively to combat the economic crisis, enacting a stimulus package on the massive scale Treasury officials were hoping for, unlike many of our European partners. It also committed a sizeable $50 billion to increase the International Monetary Fund's ability to lend to countries in crisis.
In other areas, China's audacious defense of its perceived interests has produced alarming results. A series of incidents at sea earlier this year in which Chinese vessels confronted U.S. Navy ships was incredibly dangerous. The Rio Tinto case, in which China has imprisoned, without due process, executives of an Australian mining company on charges of espionage, looks shockingly like hostage-taking and has sent a chill through the international business community. Beijing is subsidizing exports and slowing the appreciation of its currency in an attempt to send its overcapacity, and its unemployment, overseas. And in Xinjiang, it was a China confident in its population's support for its crackdown that invited reporters to witness the scene of large-scale ethnic conflict triggered by Uighur protests over pervasive discrimination.
China's efforts to address global warming, one of the Obama administration's priorities in its relationship with Beijing, fall somewhere in between these two extremes. At home, China has reduced energy usage and invested substantially in renewables. But, to date, Beijing has played a spoiler role in international climate talks. Its rulers, many of them engineers, believe the science of global warming and appreciate the harm that China will suffer if temperatures continue to rise. At the same time, because the West "started it," because its own population remains relatively poor, and because the regime has staked its longevity on an economy fueled by industrialization, Beijing wants the developed world to pay the lion's share for carbon reductions even though the future of the planet as we know it is at stake and China is the world's largest emitter of carbon.
We are in uncharted territory here. Never has a new major power come of age in so interdependent a world. China's growth has in no small part been a function of this new connectivity, but Beijing also chafes at a world order built largely to American specifications, which is where the S&ED has an increasingly important role to play. In fact, the "&" in S&ED is new. The "Strategic Economic Dialogue" in the Bush administration was run by the Treasury Department alone. The insertion of the ampersand signals a policy shift whereby these two big powers will focus--together--on strategic issues of global importance. Human rights groups were distressed when Secretary Clinton said during her first trip to China that she wouldn't let our differences on human rights get in the way of progress on other issues. But it's not that we won't talk about human rights--we will. It is that the Obama administration understands that it can't wait for China's help on urgent transnational threats: the economic crisis, the climate, pandemics, and nuclear proliferation.
Admittedly, bilateral forums are limited in what they can do. There is no "G2" because there is no global challenge on which China and the United States are the only key players. Moreover, Washington will often need others to help convince Beijing to take a responsible path. But under President Bush, the SED was instrumental in China's decision to let the value of its currency rise, to an agreement on the safety of pharmaceuticals between the Food and Drug Administration and its Chinese counterpart, and to the establishment of a long-term framework for energy cooperation. Now, the Obama administration hopes to get much more specific about clean energy projects, to coordinate next steps on North Korea, and to ease Beijing's fears about U.S. inflation while encouraging it to move toward a growth model based less on exports and more on domestic consumption.
The foremost challenge is convincing Beijing to do more for the global common good--to encourage a China that grows more responsible as it grows more confident. For that, we will need many, many hours of face time. As Americans themselves know from the Bush years, big powers are always tempted to tell the world to shove it.
Nina Hachigian is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and co-author of The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive As Other Powers Rise. She blogs at worldfocus.org/pivotalpower.