Every serious global problem has an important China angle. The Chinese are everywhere, and they're not going away any time soon.
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. 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 it'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 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 pressure on its water supplies; and sees most of the oceans that surround it dominated by a heavily militarized nation 10,000 miles away? China has made huge strides in agricultural production, but it sees the writing 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 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 to bend them to Chinese objectives? President Obama tells the Chinese that both countries can prosper if we cooperate. I see the Chinese response to this 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. 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 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.
Goldmark headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.