February 24, 2009

Engaging China

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During the past week, Secretary of State Clinton debuted on her first trip abroad, with stops in Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, and China. With this trip she brought a new emphasis and a new face to US foreign policy. Uncharacteristically blunt for a diplomat, she directly engaged issues of secession in North Korea. In China, she engaged the leadership with the skill of a global politician, rather than with the typical awkwardness that has traditionally accompanied new administrations.

During her trip she called out things that were blatantly obvious to anyone who knew anything about the US-China relationship. For one, she bluntly recognized our economic interdependence and that in these times of crisis our only choice is to go forward together. Beyond that, she reordered the agenda, bringing the environment to the forefront. The potential for cooperation between the US and China on environmental issues is great, both for economic and environmental reasons. It is no secret that China’s environment is facing grave danger. The Chinese government has always fairly said that climate change and its associated problems are products of Western-style industrial development. I think that Secretary Clinton really hit the nail on the head when she said that China has the potential to learn from our mistakes and should take every opportunity to make a better run at development.

Besides the potential for great crisis, environmental issues change the substance of the US-China relationship. As opposed to controversial (at least for some) issues such as human rights, product safety, and currency manipulation, the environment can be a way to build ties, rather than strain them. We are truly interdependent, and we’re sort of stuck. As much as we would like to criticize China, ultimately our criticisms are empty while we depend on them to finance our debt. In the future, it will be more productive for us to build something together than to tear our joint house down. For that reason I think Secretary Clinton’s trip was a great success and hopefully with that in mind we can realize our joint potential.