As the world's leaders convene in Paris to discuss ways to combat global climate change, of particular note is the deepening partnership between United States and China on this critical strategic issue. Despite ongoing tensions over cybersecurity and the South China Sea, and long-held differences on the best approach to climate issues, Washington and Beijing are coming together to try to make the Paris talks a success, with tangible and meaningful outcomes.
It won't be easy and it will take more than lip service to effect change. But one thing is clear, it will require the US and China - the world's largest carbon emitters - to come together, work together and follow through on what Paris produces. According to the latest estimates from the US Energy Information Administration, China emitted 8.1 million tons of CO2 in 2012 while the US emitted 5.2 million.
As President Obama put it this week: "As the two largest economies in the world and the two largest carbon emitters, we have both determined that it is our responsibility to take action. Our leadership on this issue has been absolutely vital."
To be sure, the US and China have struggled to cooperate on climate change. That's why the two nations' involvement in Paris this year is so significant.
Of course, it is in large part a reaction to the urgency of the issue, and the direct impact climate change is having on our two nations' economies and communities. But it is also built on the deepening personal relationship that has developed between the two leaders since Xi became president in 2012. Building those ties have been a priority for both governments, as evidenced by the sheer number of direct interactions they have had. In fact, the recent meeting in Paris is the third time the two leaders have engaged in private bilateral talks within the past 18 months. Since taking office, Obama has met with President Xi and his predecessor Hu Jintao a record 17 times. It is testament to the fact that people-to-people connections have real impact on how individuals and cultures understand each other.
This is not to suggest that the United States and China are on a path to agreement on the stickiest strategic challenges, where our perspectives and interests simply do not align. Working together on climate can have a transformational global impact, but it will not necessarily resolve tensions in the South China Sea, mitigate serious concerns about cyber theft, or erase our strong differences on issues such as the rule of law and human rights. To manage those issues, we need to double down on our investment in deepening understanding and building ties between our people, particularly those who will lead our nations in the future.
To do that, we must encourage more American and Chinese youth to learn Mandarin and English, to travel to each other's countries, to get to know one another. Relationships today build partnerships tomorrow.
For the moment, let's be cautiously optimistic that US-China cooperation on climate change will take root, not only to achieve a "low carbon global economy," but also to create a model for how Washington and Beijing can come together to address an urgent issue.
The long-term value of people-to-people ties is too often sidelined in the context of the most pressing issues of the day. To a large degree, this is unavoidable. But we must continue to find opportunities to strengthen these ties; there is consistent evidence that they pay concrete dividends.
Today's spotlight on Paris reminds the world of the importance of the US-China relationship. Let's hope words translate into action - not only on climate change but on the myriad, pressing challenges our two nations share.