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U.S. Prepares to Broach Hard Issues With China

February 12, 2009

By MARK LANDLER, New York Times

February 11, 2009

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration plans to realign the United
States’ relationship with China by putting more emphasis on climate
change, energy and human rights, widening the focus beyond the economic
concerns of the Bush years, according to senior administration officials.

With Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton scheduled to visit
Beijing next week as part of her first foreign trip in her new job, the
administration is said to believe that a broader relationship with the
Chinese could create opportunities for collaboration — not only on a
response to the global economic crisis, but also on the environment and
on security issues like the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs.

Yet the new focus, which is being championed by Mrs. Clinton, carries
risks, experts said, because it could aggravate tensions on delicate
issues like China’s repression of Tibet and its position as the world’s
leading emitter of greenhouse gases.

An added hurdle for Mrs. Clinton, these experts said, is that the United
States urgently needs China’s support on the economic front. Putting new
issues on the table now may complicate efforts to seek Beijing’s help in
areas like financial regulation and stimulus campaigns.

“The difficulty is not just that the timing is off,” said Minxin Pei, a
China expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Rebalancing the relationship means introducing elements that have
friction. Those areas that have been ignored are precisely the more
contentious ones.”

Mrs. Clinton said recently that relations during the Bush administration
“turned into an economic dialogue,” adding, “That’s a very important
aspect of our relationship with China, but it is not the only aspect.”

Speaking last week to reporters, she said, “We want it to be part of a
broader agenda, and that’s what we’re working to achieve.”

Mrs. Clinton has not yet publicly declared her priorities for China, and
she must square her ambitions with those of the Treasury secretary,
Timothy F. Geithner, and other senior Obama administration officials,
like Carol M. Browner, the White House’s coordinator of energy and
climate policy.

But Mrs. Clinton has moved to reclaim the role of the State Department
in making China policy after years in which the Treasury, led by
Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., dominated the issue. Mr. Paulson
initiated and led the so-called Strategic Economic Dialogue that covered
a wide variety of topics but, according to critics, limited American
scrutiny of issues like Tibet.

China’s crackdown on protesting Tibetan monks last year led Mrs.
Clinton, then a Democratic presidential candidate, to call on President
Bush not to attend the Beijing Olympics. Mr. Bush went to Beijing anyway
— a decision in keeping with his administration’s practice of pushing
China harder on its exchange rate than on its human rights abuses.

The Obama administration, officials said, will start softly, too,
focusing initially on climate change and energy efficiency. Mrs. Clinton
is expected to bring along her new special envoy for climate change,
Todd Stern, who has written about the need for countries that are major
emitters to work together.

The United States is likely to emphasize joint research projects over
harder issues like cuts in Chinese emissions, an approach that largely
echoes that of the Bush administration. Even so, climate experts warned
that progress could easily be derailed by other jolts between Beijing
and Washington.

“We need to be willing to set aside other things that could poison the
relationship: conflicts over Iran, conflicts over Africa, conflicts over
the currency,” said David G. Victor, an energy expert at Stanford

Mrs. Clinton, whose weeklong Asian tour also includes stops in Japan,
Indonesia and South Korea, is unlikely to confront the Chinese on her
first visit. But given that she often cites her 1995 speech to a women’s
conference in Beijing and its hostile reception by the Chinese, it is
hard to imagine that she would soft-pedal human rights abuses in Tibet
or elsewhere.

Officials said Mrs. Clinton was determined to engage the Chinese on
North Korea, pushing for a resumption of multiparty talks with the North
Koreans. Outside experts have urged the secretary to name a lead
American negotiator for North Korea before her trip, to underline her

Christopher R. Hill, the current negotiator, is expected to be appointed
ambassador to Iraq, though he will travel to Asia with Mrs. Clinton.
Among the people rumored to be in line for the North Korea post is
Stephen W. Bosworth, a former American ambassador to South Korea.

Mr. Bosworth, now dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at
Tufts University, returned Saturday from a private visit to Pyongyang,
the North Korean capital, telling reporters that he detected some
willingness on the part of North Korean officials to talk to the Obama

Mrs. Clinton’s greatest challenge in seizing China policy, some experts
said, is that she is not the Treasury secretary. “What’s more important
right now than economics?” said Nicholas R. Lardy, a China expert at the
Peterson Institute for International Economics.
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