When Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji meets President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore in Washington in April, the political climate is unlikely to be auspicious. The United States and China have reached a virtual stalemate on each of their traditional agenda items. Negotiations over China's entry into the World Trade Organization have stalled; China's continued drive for reunification with Taiwan offers little potential for fruitful dialogue; and human rights remains an elusive area for compromise. Yet the Sino-American relationship may well define global prosperity and military security in the 21st century. Allowing it to deteriorate risks a future punctuated by frequent military and economic conflicts and global instability. Both sides are eager to sustain the illusion of progress produced by the recent presidential summits. Hence, a centerpiece of the talks will likely be a subject viewed by both as uncontroversial-environmental cooperation.
Chinese and American leaders believe that the environment is a low priority issue with plenty of common ground. This is a big mistake. The environment is as complex as other key diplomatic issues, featuring differing interests and priorities, weak Chinese institutions, Chinese defiance of international agreements, and conflict between Congress and the White House over how to achieve U.S. aims.
Moreover, environmental issues have direct and serious implications for other U.S. foreign policy objectives. A warmer Sino-American relationship is stymied by China's reluctance to seek any middle ground with the United States until it is in firm control domestically. But the environmental problems created by China's recent economic boom now threaten the country's fragile social, political, and economic infrastructure. This is a momentous issue, and the question is: Is China's economic growth sustainable? Progress in bilateral discussions rests on China's resolution of it. Fleeing to the environment as a short-term foreign policy sanctuary will be treacherous if these complications are ignored. If fully understood and thoughtfully addressed, however, China's environmental problems offer a unique opportunity for the United States to cooperate with China on a vital issue.