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A Fresh Start for China

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with President Barack Obama in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, DC, January 26, 2009. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with President Barack Obama in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, DC, January 26, 2009. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

There is, however, a hopeful double paradox within this daunting challenge. For the first time in recent history, the U.S. and China find themselves with a demonstrably common interest. Equally significant, as the self-confidence and influence of the U.S. waned under the Bush Administration, the Sino-U.S. playing field has become more level than ever before. When it comes to climate change, we are both sinners before the Lord. This state of parity, however accidentally it may have been arrived at, presents a new psychological climate where the kind of equal partnership for which the Chinese have long yearned seems possible.

So when Clinton goes to China, questions to do with climate change must be at the top of the agenda. For example: Where can we cooperate on energy efficiency? Can the U.S. and China find ways to jointly profit from the development of low-carbon economies? Currencies, Tibet, human rights, Taiwan and other important questions should not be forgotten. But a new united front to address climate issues would help bolster the larger edifice of Sino-U.S. relations, making it easier to deal with these other contentious issues.

Even the most artful U.S.-China policy will never satisfy those in China who continually dwell on past slights and grievances or alter the fact that we have very different and contradictory political systems. But a significant collaboration on climate change could go a long way to stabilizing the most important bilateral relationship in the world today. It would demonstrate the kind of leadership that has been missing from the U.S. of late and which the international community increasingly, and with good reason, expects from a rising China.

Sino-U.S. joint leadership on climate change would not only reassure the world that the challenge of global warming could be met. If done with diplomatic skill, it could also help create the basis for a new and very different kind of partnership between these two great nations.

Orville Schell, a China scholar, is director of the Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations.