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Vol. LXIII, No. 48
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
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Mutual Mistrust and Media Indifference Cited in Talk on U.S.-China Relations

Ellen Gilbert

Former Clinton administration official Kenneth Lieberthal agrees “overall” with President Obama’s contention that there is no more important relationship to the U.S. than the one it has with China.

At a recent talk entitled “U.S.-China Relations and the Issue of Climate Change” sponsored by the The Princeton-Harvard China and the World Program, and the Woodrow Wilson School for International Affairs, Mr. Lieberthal offered perspectives on the two countries’ recent efforts to work together, and, particularly, their prospects for addressing climate change either collaboratively or separately.

The complexities informing U.S.-China relations are formidable, said the University of Michigan Professor of Political Science and Brookings Institution Visiting Fellow. Not the least of them was the press’s disregard for the seven clean energy agreements made during President Obama’s recent visit to China. Despite the fact that they are “enormously effective,” Mr. Lieberthal said, “it’s hard to get momentum going, since the press totally ignored it.”

Speaking to a full audience in the Woodrow Wilson School’s Robertson Auditorium, Mr. Lieberthal said that it was important to distinguish “clean energy,” a more easily agreed-upon concept, from “climate change,” which is more “diffuse and emotional.” Distrust of the U.S.’s intentions may make it difficult for China to agree to limit carbon emissions, he observed, as they wonder whether they are truly being asked to do something for the environment, or actually being told to cut back on production that threatens the U.S. economy.

The mistrust is mutual, Mr. Lieberthal noted, with the U.S. anxious about “what a wealthy and powerful China would be like,” and fear that it would undermine U.S. interests. Each side needs to think about issues that will facilitate more “credible communication” with each other over the long term, he noted. In the meantime, “chances of sliding into a mutually antagonistic relationship are very high.”

Mr. Lieberthal described the juxtaposition of China’s “political economy designed to maximize export competitiveness” with current high rates of unemployment in the U.S. as “very troublesome.” He predicted that “temperatures will rise” during the coming year in China’s relations with both the U.S. and the European Union. Human rights issues may come to the fore, particularly with respect to China’s treatment of Tibet.

In the midst of these larger issues, Mr. Lieberthal said, addressing climate questions may provide an opportunity for the two countries to work together. Unlike President Bush, he noted, President Obama believes in global warming and the fact that while governments alone cannot solve the problem, they are necessary components in its solution.

With the Himalaya glaciers (sometimes described as “the Water Tower of Asia”) losing seven percent of their volume annually, China is “fundamentally threatened” by global warming, observed Mr. Lieberthal. Rainfall has dramatically diminished, and rising sea levels threaten China’s metropolitan areas. Responding to these crises may actually pose an “economic opportunity” for the Chinese, according to Mr. Lieberthal. Having missed out on the industrial and the information revolutions, they are eager to be “key innovators” in the “green” revolution.

Mr. Lieberthal concluded by suggesting that the “whole idea of what the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference will accomplish needs to be reframed,” with less focus on ultimate targets, and more attention on “putting the architecture for final agreements into place.”

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