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[Peter Goldmark] Questions for China and the U.S.

Every serious global problem has an important China angle. The Chinese are everywhere, and they’re not going away any time soon.

As a matter of fact, the Chinese are firmly convinced that this is “their” century, and that they will displace the United States as global economic leader.

The last country with a dominant global economic role that had to face a boisterous, fast-growing upstart was Britain. The upstart was us. And in the decades following World War I, Britain assessed the situation wisely and adapted their policies shrewdly, becoming America’s “special partner.” Our role as global economic leader is under challenge today by the Chinese, and they are beefing up their military as well.

China is completing a succession struggle to determine who will be its next paramount leader. This process is famously murky to both outsiders and insiders, but it appears that Xi Jinping will be designated to succeed President Hu Jintao. We know little about what Xi thinks and what deals he had to make to beat out his competitors for the job. But the transition means China will be reassessing its position on key issues; and that’s a good time for us to reassess too.

To a country like ours, mired in a deep recession, China seems to be rippling with economic muscle and implacable in its momentum. But China is also a country with enormous problems as well as strengths. How would you like to run a country that will have to import increasing proportions of its food, energy and other raw materials; faces enormous pressure on its water supplies; and sees most of the oceans that surround it dominated by a heavily militarized nation 10,000 miles away? The decade we just completed was the first in half a century during which the world as a whole consumed more grain than it produced, eating into reserves for the first time since the 1950s. China has made huge strides in agricultural production, but it sees the handwriting on the wall. It seeks to dominate wind and solar, the world’s established renewable energy technologies, but even when you count the country’s vast coal reserves, the Chinese depend increasingly on energy imports.

China will be able to achieve neither energy nor food independence, and it is being drawn into uneasy participation in the global regimes that govern trade, international finance and investment. Will China support these regimes, or seek brutally to bend them to Chinese objectives? President Barack Obama tells the Chinese that both countries can prosper if we cooperate. I see the Chinese response to this, so far, as guarded.

On many of the most important issues of our time, China is ambivalent or downright recalcitrant. It has not moved decisively to put its carbon emissions on a downward path ― and if China and the United States do not both do that soon, we will fry the planet. It has been erratic in its stance toward North Korea, a neighbor that endangers us all by selling components of weapons of mass destruction. And China has been an inconsistent participant in the world’s free-trade regime.

Even as it seeks to internationalize its currency, it maintains a system of extensive capital controls and operates a two-track economy: one for the Chinese and one for foreign business interests.

In the end, the questions for China are really questions for the United States as well. Can China and the United States conclude that an unrestrained arms race is in neither’s interest? Can they both reduce their carbon emissions? And can they devise new systems of restraint and cooperation in cyberspace, which is where many of the most dangerous sources of instability going forward will be found? We all have a lot riding on whether these two economic giants can find cooperative answers to those questions ― or whether confrontation and provocation unleash a costly new cold war.

By Peter Goldmark

Peter Goldmark, a former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund. ― Ed.

(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)