U.S.-China Ties Pose Tricky Proposition For Obama On issues such as halting global warming to stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction, President-elect Barack Obama will need China's cooperation. But in other areas, China is a competitor. Obama faces challenges in managing this complex relationship.

U.S.-China Ties Pose Tricky Proposition For Obama

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The complex relationship between China and the U.S. holds a number of challenges for President-elect Barack Obama. Mr. Obama will need China's cooperation on halting global warming, stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and many other issues in between, all the while navigating conflicting and overlapping interests with that country's often opaque Communist party. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports.

ANTHONY KUHN: On the campaign trail, President-elect Obama said that the U.S. needed to bring fresh thinking to relations with China. But experts on both sides of the Pacific feel that the relationship with China was actually a bright spot in the Bush administration's foreign policy.

Some experts suggest that to do better, Mr. Obama will need to make the relationship a top priority and assign responsibility at the highest level for coordinating policy towards China. David Lampton is head of the China studies program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Dr. DAVID LAMPTON (Head of China Studies, Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University): Probably the first thing the administration's going to have to deal with is how does it organize itself to deal effectively with such a complicated, multifaceted relationship? Do we continue this strategic economic dialog and a dialog that's been going on with the State Department with China or move it to a higher level?

KUHN: Mr. Obama has so far emphasized strengthening the U.S. rather than weakening its competitors. Of course, China is also focused on building infrastructure, health care and education. How the two countries do at this will determine whether the U.S. gains or loses influence and soft power, relative to China. Mr. Obama's election was in itself a display of soft power that got people thinking in a nation with 55 ethnic minorities. So says Fudan University American studies expert Shen Dingli in Shanghai.

Dr. SHEN DINGLI (Professor and Executive Dean, International Relations, Fudan University): (Through translator) Well, at least I've considered it. For example, could a Uighur become our head of state? Or could a woman become our prime minister? These things are my dream, too.

KUHN: Uighurs are a Turkish-speaking Muslim minority in China's northwest. And as fresh as the new administration's ideas may be, no recent U.S. president has been able to avoid contention with China on issues such as minority rights, freedom of religion and democracy. Again, here's David Lampton.

Dr. LAMPTON: I think both leaderships, going back to Nixon and Mao and up to the current, have really realized that we have both conflicting and overlapping interests, and on balance, we can get more through cooperation than, you know, a breakdown into conflict but that this will never be an easy relationship to manage.

KUHN: There are plenty of people in both countries who think that conflict between the U.S. and China is inevitable. Mr. Obama will need to keep that from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Admiral William Fallon was head of the U.S. Pacific Command from 2005 to 2007. He says that the U.S. needs to nudge China's military modernization in a benign direction.

Admiral WILLIAM FALLON (Retired, U.S. Navy): It's certainly bears watching and, more than just watching, engagement by us as a nation to try to get them to be much more transparent in what they're doing, which they are not, and to encourage them to construct a military that's only appropriate to their internal needs and not to pursue some aggressive path.

KUHN: As much as U.S. actions may influence China's future direction, neither side can foresee how China will turn out and whether China will become a nation that is, on balance, more friendly or hostile to the U.S.

(Soundbite of Mr. Deng Xiaoping, 1974)

Mr. DENG XIAOPING (Former Leader, Chinese Communist Party): (Through translator) China is not now and will never become a superpower.

KUHN: Deng Xiaoping, who would later become China's paramount leader, made that pledge at the United Nations in 1974. But then he offered some cautionary advice.

(Soundbite of Mr. Deng Xiaoping, 1974)

Mr. DENG: (Through translator) If China ever becomes a superpower - bullying, invading and exploiting other countries - then you should label it a socialist imperial power. You should expose it, oppose it and, together with the Chinese people, overthrow it.

KUHN: So when China is headed in the right direction, advisors say, Mr. Obama ought to give it some credit and encouragement. But when it heads in the wrong direction, as Deng clearly implied, Mr. Obama won't be hurting the Chinese people's feelings if he stands up to their government. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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