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U.S.-China Relations Hinge on Global Climate Change

2/19/2008 --

Ross professor urges next U.S. president to make climate change a "signature issue."

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—When the next U.S. president assumes office, he/she must make global climate change the leading agenda item in shaping U.S.-China relations, says a professor at the Ross School of Business.

"As the next president takes office, the top question likely will be, 'How do I recapture America's allure in the world?'" says Kenneth Lieberthal, the William Davidson Professor of Business Administration at Ross. "And there is no issue globally that would capture more respect than taking a leadership role regarding climate change."

Lieberthal's comments were presented at a February 12, 2008, lecture on U.S.-China relations co-sponsored by the Center for Chinese Studies (CCS) at the University of Michigan and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

"The U.S. and China are the two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases by far," says Lieberthal. "And we also are the two most powerful industrialized nations on the planet. If we can forge ahead and partner on the significant issue of global climate change, it would be tough to picture any other country having an excuse not to sign on."

Lieberthal, a research associate of the CCS, served as Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and Senior Director for Asia on the National Security Council from August 1998-October 2000. He has written and edited several books and articles on policy, politics, and decision-making with regards to China. He also is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Political Science and Distinguished Fellow and Director for China at the William Davidson Institute at the U-M.

Lieberthal cites global climate change as a top-tier agenda issue for multiple reasons. Increased media attention and sobering scientific analysis notwithstanding, climate anomalies are now so ubiquitous that people worldwide experience them first-hand. Failure to address these pressing issues, especially by China, will bring catastrophic implications to that nation, he says.

Acting in concert on global climate change would bring enormous political benefit to both the U.S. and China, Lieberthal notes. "It could provide the basis of a sufficiently wide-ranging, deep, and sustained level of cooperation [between the countries] that would tilt the long term decisively in the direction of basic cooperation. This would likely lead to a kind of integration that would be really powerful."

Lieberthal concedes the Bush administration has done an effective job in managing the complex and mature relations between the U.S. and China on a traditional, bi-lateral, and day-to-day basis. But the next president has much work to do in demonstrating a credible commitment to long-term cooperation with China. This issue is further complicated by that nation¿s rapid economic ascendance, industrialization, and militarization.

"Both [the U.S. and China] seek to hedge against their fears of what they perceive the others' intentions are," says Lieberthal. "Hedging is a problem, as it tends to create self-fulfilling prophecies. And hedges, more often than not, tend to be military."

Lieberthal cites various strategies the next president could employ to cope with economic, energy, and global security issues with China. But he follows each suggestion with the caveat that both nations must undergo fundamental changes to make them work. It is unlikely we will see such fundamental change in the near future, he admits.

Thus, he concludes, a near-term pact on global climate change could best set the stage for long-term cooperation and trust in other complex, subtle, and nuanced areas.

"This would be an issue the president could not leave to the chief of staff or energy secretary," Lieberthal says. "In order to get things done, the next U.S. president has to make global climate change a signature issue. And this needs to happen now so that we don't waste several more years in a situation where time is not on our side."

For more information, contact:

Bernie DeGroat, (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847,