The most significant "pivot" of Barack Obama's first (and perhaps only) term as president was his own 180-degree reversal on China. In his first year in office, the president prioritized relations with Beijing over those with Tokyo, New Delhi, and other partners -- including our European allies. This created the distinct impression, at home and abroad, that Obama was abandoning our traditional friends in favor of a neo-Nixonian "China-first" strategy.
This idea of a "G2" -- the notion that the current superpower and the rising one could form a condominium of power to manage global governance -- backfired. It contributed to Beijing's sense that it was a near-equal to Washington, superior to everyone else, and fueled Chinese assertiveness over a range of previously dormant territorial conflicts with its neighbors. By late 2011, Obama had shifted gears: He announced a new "pivot to Asia" that appeared, to our Chinese friends, to be a policy of encircling and containing Chinese power. The White House's course now was heightening suspicions in Beijing that the original Obama policy was designed to allay.
Every new U.S. president goes through a learning curve on China. In 2013, however, the stakes will be much higher: China is much more powerful than when Governor Bill Clinton spoke of "the butchers of Beijing" or when Governor George W. Bush labeled China a "strategic competitor."
China is a global economic power -- the world's second largest -- whose decisions on interest rates and budgets move markets. China is an aspiring regional hegemon: Its sharp-elbowed approaches toward its neighbors, and Japan in particular, risk igniting a shooting war that draws in the United States. At the same time, China is also more politically brittle than it has been since 1949. Its decade-long leadership transition has exposed enormous strains within the governing elite and society over endemic corruption, abuse of power, inequality, and the future of reform.
The stakes in U.S.-China relations, therefore, have rarely been higher. Both countries are struggling to find a formula that makes peaceful coexistence, rather than militarized competition, more likely. Conflict serves neither country's interests: America's next president will no doubt spend much of his term digging the United States out of debt, while China's next president will be obsessed with maintaining social stability and transitioning to a sustainable economic model amidst rising grassroots pressure for change. A global test of wills promises to only make both leaders' most pressing priorities even more difficult to achieve.
The problem is that neither China nor the United States can separate domestic politics from foreign policy. China's currency manipulation and unfair trade practices make it a domestic issue in the United States, as we have seen in this election cycle. America's determination to defend its allies and interests in Asia against Beijing's expansionism incite popular nationalism in China -- which its leaders manipulate to divert attention from problems at home and ingratiate themselves with key constituencies like the People's Liberation Army.