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Congressional Research Service, "U.S.-China Relations: Policy Issues", August 2, 2012

This CRS report was written by Susan V. Lawrence (specialist in Asian Affairs) and David MacDonald (research associate).
August 2, 2012

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Congress faces important questions about what sort of relationship the United States should have with China and how the United States should respond to China’s “rise.” After 30 years of fast-paced economic growth, China’s economy is now the second largest in the world after the United States. With economic success, China has developed significant global strategic clout. It is also engaged in an ambitious military modernization drive, including efforts to develop extended-range power projection capabilities and such advanced weapons as a “carrier killer” anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM). At home, it continues to suppress all perceived challenges to the Communist Party’s monopoly on power.  

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has described as “uncharted territory” the U.S. attempt “to work with a rising power”—China—“to foster its rise as an active contributor to global security, stability and prosperity while also sustaining and securing American leadership in a changing world.” In previous eras, the rise of new powers produced rivalry and conflict. Clinton has argued that the United States and China must find “a new answer to the ancient question of what happens when an established power and a rising power meet” because, “Interdependence means that one of us cannot succeed unless the other does as well.” The Obama Administration has repeatedly assured China that the United States “welcomes a strong, prosperous and successful China that plays a greater role in world affairs,” and does not seek to prevent China’s re-emergence as a great power.  

Washington has wrestled, however, with how to engage China on issues affecting stability and security in the Asia-Pacific region. Issues of concern for Washington include China’s military modernization program, its desire to regulate U.S. military operations in the “Exclusive Economic Zone” off its coast, its assertive territorial claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea, and its continuing threat to use force to bring Taiwan under its control. The United States has rolled out plans for a strategic rebalancing toward the Asia Pacific, but with U.S.-China military-to-military ties fragile, it has struggled
to convince Beijing that the rebalancing is not intended to contain China. The two countries have cooperated, with mixed results, to address nuclear proliferation concerns related to Iran and North Korea.  

While working with China to revive the global economy, the United States has also wrestled with how to persuade China to address economic policies the United States sees as denying a level playing field to U.S. firms trading with and operating in China. Such economic policies include China’s “indigenous innovation” industrial policies, its weak protections for intellectual property rights, and its currency policy. The United States has differed with China over approaches to combating climate change, while cooperating with China in the development of clean energy technologies. Human rights remains one of the thorniest areas of the relationship, with the United States pressing China to ease restrictions on freedom of speech, internet freedom, religious and ethnic minorities, and labor rights, and China’s leaders suspicious that the United States’ real goal is to end Communist Party rule.

This report opens with an overview of the U.S.-China relationship and Obama Administration policy toward China, followed by a review of recent developments in the relationship. A summary of major policy issues in the relationship follows. Throughout, this report directs the reader to other CRS reports for more detailed information about individual topics. This report will be updated periodically.

Click here for a listing of reports released by the Congressional Research Service.

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