A New Sino-American Relationship?

The Strategic and Economic Dialogue between the US and China has now ended with the establishment of a felicitous new atmosphere between the two countries. But, while the most logical and potentially fruitful area of collaboration is climate change, huge obstacles to progress remain.

NEW YORK – The Strategic and Economic Dialogue between the United States and China has now ended with the establishment of a felicitous new atmosphere between the two countries. But how can this “love-in” be made concrete?

The most logical and potentially fruitful area of collaboration is climate change. Here, the two US government officials best equipped to lead are Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke.

Chu is a former Berkeley and Stanford professor of physics and head of the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, while Locke is a former Washington State governor and a long-time supporter of US-China commercial exchanges. Each packs the kind of soft, utilitarian powers of persuasion that Chinese leaders are most willing to embrace: academic degrees from prestigious universities, advanced scientific and technological knowledge, high office, and a Nobel Prize. (Chu is one of five ethnic Chinese to have won a Nobel, although no winner has yet come from the PRC, a fact that gnaws at Chinese pride.)

China’s press was abuzz over Chu and Locke, the first ethnic Chinese men to become US Cabinet Secretaries. Most major Chinese papers ran Chu’s photo on the front page, with Beijing Business Today running a cautionary headline: “Don’t Mistake the Visiting American Ministers as Relatives!” The paper went on to warn that, “In their own hearts, we are afraid that Chu and Locke put their priorities in exactly the opposite order.”

When Chu gave speeches on energy and climate change at Tsinghua University, China’s most elite institution for science and engineering (where his parents had been students), and then at Tianjin University (where his grandfather was once President), he was received with enormous enthusiasm, overflow crowds, and standing ovations. So, the Chinese ended up embracing Chu and Locke in contradictory ways: as high-ranking representatives of the US government and as compatriots with whom they share the common bond of Chinese-ness.

Both Chu and Locke are aware that the US and China are now the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases, and that, if there is any hope of remedying global climate change, the two countries must quickly find a way to collaborate. Chu emphasized this point in his Tsinghua University speech, calling the global climate situation “very disturbing,” and stressing that we were “all in it together.” “The developed world did make the problem…I admit that,” he acknowledged to his rapt audience. “But the developing world can make it much worse.”

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In announcing a new Sino-US joint research effort, Chu described clean energy as “one of the great opportunities of our time” for Sino-US cooperation, saying that by “working together, we can accomplish more than [by] acting alone.”

Still, one is left wonder if this new collaborative bonhomie and ethnic bonding will prove strong enough to cut through not only the long history of distrustful interactions between the US and China, but also the destabilizing effects of China’s sudden economic rise? For, although the US has drawn strength from the ideal of a “melting pot” – and President Barack Obama’s cabinet does represent a new high-water mark for diversity – Americans have often shown a xenophobic distrust of immigrants who have drawn too close to power.

Especially in the case of Chinese, fears of divided national loyalties and “fifth columns” have been strong. One need only recall the recent case of Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist who was unjustly accused of spying, to be reminded of how yin and yang are America’s feelings about minority members in sensitive positions.

There is a second obstruction as well: the US Congress refuses to face up realistically to the climate challenge, because China, as a developing country, is not obliged to accept compulsory carbon limits. Then, because the US refuses to take responsibility for its cumulative and per capita greenhouse-gas emissions – which are, respectively, roughly four and three times greater than China’s – the Chinese leadership refuses to make concessions. A standoff ensues, which is where we are now.

China recently demanded that the US reduce its emissions by 40% from its 1990 baseline levels and subsidize emission reduction efforts in China and other developing countries to the tune of .05-1% of America’s GDP. But the recently House-passed Waxman-Markey bill proposes that the US only cut emissions by 3.6% of 1990 baseline levels.

So it is still far from clear what will actually work to bring about an understanding between the US and China that produces real results. Moreover, with India poking Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the eye over her climate-change entreaties, the world could easily see an even more unified and unyielding bloc emerge among developing countries.

The next moment to watch is Obama’s trip to China in November. Here, if all the expressions of good feeling cannot be made concrete, an incomparable opportunity to recast Sino-US relations around the issue of climate change will have been lost.