When President Richard Nixon made his remarkable visit to China in 1972, the journey was framed as an historic cease-fire between two Cold War combatants. Barely 30 years later, the current leaders of the two nations are set to meet again on Sept. 7 in Washington. But this time, things are radically different. Now economic, not ideological, rivalries are pushing the two apart. And rather than the poor, insular country of the Nixon era, today's China is an ascendant nation that has pulled hundreds of millions of its citizens out of poverty in a generation and could eclipse America's global economic preeminence by mid-century.
Such a transformation calls for a change in the discourse between the two powers. That's why the focus of the visit to Washington by Chinese President Hu Jintao should be on areas where there is the possibility of progress, rather than on issues so divisive that no movement can be gained. President George W. Bush must broach discussions about China's continuing efforts to isolate Taiwan's government (although not its investment) and of Beijing's curbs on human rights and press freedoms. But those contested issues must not drown out the dialogue in areas where the two nations are actually making headway, such as China's recent decision to begin appreciating its currency and the increased policing of intellectual- property rights. They're a welcome start, although progress in both areas is still inadequate.
More places exist for reaching a common ground. In energy, for example, the interests of China and the U.S. are more aligned than many think. The U.S. uses the most now, but China is the fastest-growing major consumer. Both import much of the oil needed to fuel their power-hungry economies. So Beijing and Washington share a basic need: adequate supplies of energy at the lowest prices.
That's one reason the recent howls in Congress over the failed bid for Unocal Corp. (CVX ) by China's CNOOC Ltd. (CEO ) were so shortsighted. As Beijing invests in oil assets, here or overseas, it could eventually increase global oil production and reduce prices -- benefiting the U.S. in the process. Although the Unocal deal fell prey to U.S. protectionist fears, Hu and Bush should not be afraid to use their meeting to explore other forms of energy cooperation in areas such as research on renewable fuels and conservation. Any agreement on these problems can only benefit the two nations' strained relations -- and send a potent message to the rest of the world that a new day of U.S.-Sino collaboration based on mutual self-interest is dawning.
It's time for America to abandon the naive view that China is a rival that can be easily bested -- or simply ignored if not. Such thinking is not only improbable but also not in the best interests of America. China is in part responsible for many things Americans depend on to maintain their high standard of living -- everything from state-of-the-art Dell laptops to cheap bath towels at the local Wal-Mart (WMT ). And Beijing is becoming a key ally in dealing with North Korea and other volatile nations where U.S. influence is weak. Dismissing China as a global player is simply no longer an option. Instead, the two powers must build on their bruised-but-not-broken base of bilateral trade to pursue mutually beneficial goals in areas such as energy, security, and the environment.
That won't be easy. But just as Nixon and Chinese leaders Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai in 1972 recognized the practical benefits of putting decades of mistrust behind them, Presidents Bush and Hu must embrace the need for a more egalitarian exchange between the U.S. and China.