President Barack Obama's appointment of John Kerry as secretary of state and Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense will likely bring a major improvement in U.S.-China relations during the administration's second term. Both Kerry and Hagel support greater U.S. cooperation with China and favor a diplomatic resolution of conflicts between the two countries.
As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry argued convincingly:
"...the simple fact is that we need China, and China needs us. We have to get this relationship right. After all, we are talking about our connection to one-sixth of humanity. The most serious problems we face today, from nuclear proliferation to climate change, can't be solved alone. And, economically, our futures are deeply intertwined and will remain so."
Kerry warns that "the tendency to demonize China, to consider it the next great threat, just isn't based in reality." He believes "there is incredible potential for cooperation, even as we have to deal with certain disagreements now."
For his part, Chuck Hagel now serves as Chairman of the Atlantic Council which concluded in a landmark report issued in early December that "U.S. strategy to 2030 must deepen cooperation with China as the most crucial single factor that will shape the international system..." (emphasis mine).
The report stressed that "U.S. strategy will need to accommodate legitimate, essential Chinese interests" just as China "will need to make reciprocal adjustments in regard to US essential interests."
The Atlantic Council urged the U.S. and China to "more assertively work to avoid the historic pattern of a rising power posing a strategic threat to the status quo. Such conflict would be catastrophic for the world, as zero-sum behavior and conflict would be difficult to avoid."
Kerry and Hagel's appointments come at a time when China's political transition offers Washington a window of opportunity to improve relations with Beijing. By moving quickly in President Obama's second term to take advantage of this opportunity, the United States can benefit economically from China's rise, strengthen Chinese advocates of human rights and avoid a new Cold War in the Asia Pacific.
The new generation of Chinese leaders who will take power in March 2013 face daunting challenges resulting from rapid economic development -- including corruption and cronyism within the Communist Party, environmental degradation, frequent "mass incidents" of social unrest, inflation and glaring social inequalities.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is right in arguing that incoming President Xi will "spearhead a resurgence of economic reform and probably some political easing as well." Kristof is also on the mark in pointing out that Xi is "more nationalistic" than former President Hu Jintao.
China's new leaders will welcome overtures from the United States along with any U.S. policies that aim to assist China in meeting its challenges. But harsh American trade measures or heightened U.S. military pressure will likely be met with a tough response, as the new leaders seek to prove their mettle and their capability to defend China's national interests.
Increased tensions with China could have dire consequences. They could lead to a military conflict over Taiwan's political status, over whether Japan or China holds sovereignty to a group of uninhabitable islands in the East China Sea, or over the ownership of small islands and energy resources in the South China Sea. In a worst-case scenario, those conflicts could escalate, by accident or design, to a nuclear exchange.
The best way to overcome the "China threat" and advance U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific is by achieving a stable peace with China through the resolution of outstanding security and economic conflicts between the two countries. This would ensure China is a future partner and not a threat to the interests of America and its allies.
It is essential to remember that China's rise strengthens America's economy and future prosperity. As Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has pointed out, U.S. trade with China is "supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs across the nation in all sectors..." The United States and China, as Geithner puts it, "have a great deal invested in each other's success."
Improving U.S. relations with China would greatly strengthen Chinese advocates of human rights and democracy by depriving security forces of their "most dependable weapon," in the view of former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky: an external security threat from the United States which is now used to legitimize internal political repression.
The American people are truly fortunate that President Obama had the wisdom and foresight to select John Kerry as secretary of state and Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense. These crucial appointments make it far more likely the U.S. will seize the opportunity created by the emergence of China's new leadership to stabilize U.S.-China relations -- by pursuing a diplomatic strategy that minimizes conflict, achieves greater mutually-beneficial Sino-American cooperation, and significantly expands trade and investment between the two countries.
Donald Gross is a senior associate at the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and author of The China Fallacy: How the U.S. Can Benefit from China's Rise and Avoid Another Cold War (Bloomsbury, 2012).