China's current political transition offers Washington a window of opportunity to improve relations with Beijing. Rather than risk a continuing downward spiral in the critical U.S.-China relationship, President Barack Obama must move quickly in his second term in order to take advantage of this opportunity.
At last week's 18th Party Congress, Beijing began a once-in-a-decade leadership transition. The country's new leaders -- including President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang -- know first hand some of the worst excesses of China's Communist Party. They were victims of Mao's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, when an entire generation of young people - many from prominent families - were "sent down" to rural areas for years to perform backbreaking manual labor.
Having experienced and survived widespread human rights abuses that occurred between 1966 and 1976, the year of Mao's death, China's new leaders will be more receptive to calls for political reform from the country's middle class and liberal intellectuals, who are highly critical of increasing corruption and cronyism within the Communist Party.
Pressure from the middle class is driving a push for political reform, while, at the same time, China's leaders are dealing with daunting challenges arising from rapid economic development - among them, glaring social inequality, inflation, frequent "mass incidents," social unrest and environmental degradation.
China's new leaders will welcome overtures from the United States, along with any U.S. policies that aim to assist the country in meeting the challenges it faces. But harsh American trade measures or increased U.S. military pressure will likely be met with a tough response, as the new leaders seek to prove their mettle and their ability to defend China's national interests.
Beijing's political transition comes at a time when the United States stands at a crossroads in U.S-China relations. We urgently need a national debate to rethink U.S. China policy and prevent doing permanent damage to American interests in Asia.
Increased tensions with China could hold a number of dire consequences. They could lead to a serious military conflict over Taiwan's political status, over whether Japan or China holds sovereignty to a group of uninhabitable islands in the East China Sea or over the ownership of small islands and energy resources in the South China Sea. In a worst case scenario, those conflicts could escalate, by accident or design, to a nuclear exchange.
It is essential to remember that China's rise strengthens America's economy and future prosperity. Trade with China -- America's third-largest export market -- as aided America's recovery during the global financial crisis.
Between 2000 and 2011, U.S. exports to China increased by about 640 percent, going from $16 billion to $104 billion. China is the largest growth market in the world for U.S. exports, and it supports thousands of high-quality American jobs.
The best way to overcome the "China threat" and advance U.S. interests in the region is by achieving a stable peace with China through the resolution of outstanding security and economic conflicts between the two countries. This would enable the U.S. to deal decisively with the very legitimate concerns many Americans have over China's commercial practices, including infringement of intellectual property rights, undervalued currency and protectionist measures that favor domestic industries.
Through a new policy approach, we can ensure China is a future partner and not a threat to American interests. This new policy would:
• Significantly reduce China's current and potential military threat to Taiwan, thus securing Taiwan's democracy;
• Achieve a pull-back of Chinese forces from a defined coastal security zone surrounding Japan;
• Have China submit its maritime disputes in the South and East China seas to an independent international judicial body;
• Increase security cooperation with China on both regional and global issues;
• Substantially increase China's military transparency, especially in the development of new weapons systems;
• Facilitate new bilateral and regional free trade agreements that will unleash unprecedented levels of international trade and investment, generating hundreds of thousands of new American jobs;
• Greatly strengthen the advocates of human rights and democracy in China by depriving security forces of their "most dependable weapon," in the view of former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky: an external security threat from the United States which is now used to legitimize internal political repression.
In his second term, President Obama should seize the opportunity created by the emergence of China's new leadership to stabilize U.S.-China relations -- by pursuing a diplomatic strategy that minimizes conflict, emphasizes peaceful coexistence and significantly expands trade and investment between the two countries.