WASHINGTON — The United States is preparing to open a new diplomatic front in its increasingly complex relationship with China in an effort to reduce the danger of a major miscalculation between the two giants.
Unlike current contacts that focus on specific economic, political and security issues, the new dialogue will seek to look at U.S.-China relations in a larger framework, a recognition of Beijing's growing importance.
Senior State Department officials say they hope the new channel will develop into a deeper level of engagement, one that will be more conversation than negotiation, that builds trust and offers a chance to study the broader implications of specific issues that have turned Sino-U.S. ties into one of America's most challenging international relationships.
"We want to try to get people to look across issues and see their interrelationships -- whether its foreign and security policy or economic, trade, finance or energy," Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick said in an interview.
For the Bush administration, the new talks reflect a conviction that it needs to do more to address the implications of China's rapid emergence in the four years since America was hit by the Sept. 11 attacks, then occupied with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The talks also come as anti-China sentiments are rising in Congress, driven by worries about Beijing's expanding economic might, its growing trade surplus with the U.S. and a steady military buildup that has unsettled America's defense planners. Some lawmakers believe that, far from solidifying its engagement strategy, the United States should begin to confront China.
"The general feeling is we're headed into a rough patch," said Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, a China scholar at Georgetown University.
Zoellick, known and respected by the Chinese during his job as U.S. trade representative during President Bush's first term, has been named to head an American delegation, while Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo will lead China's delegation. The inaugural two-day meeting of the new dialogue, scheduled in Beijing early next month, is expected to focus mainly on setting up the new process.
The stakes in adjusting effectively to China's emergence as a major power could hardly be higher.
Although U.S.-China ties lack the immediacy of America's struggle to reshape the Middle East, foreign affairs specialists contend that "getting China right" may be far more critical to the nation's long-term future. Few events carry more danger to an existing world order than the emergence of a major new power, as history proved with the rise of Germany and Japan in the last century.
"There's no reason to believe we are any smarter today than the policymakers who 'mismanaged' the rise of Germany and Japan," former State Department official and political commentator Robert Kagan concluded in a recent article published in the Washington Post on the challenge of China's emergence.
Some of those outside the administration who are tracking U.S.-China relations applaud the new dialogue as a positive step.
"What the administration is doing is critically necessary," said Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), a member of the House International Relations Committee, who recently visited China. "China will rise with or without the U.S., so the real question is if the U.S. can also prosper and if it can play a constructive role in creating an environment where China can cooperate on common interests."
Some U.S.-China specialists see the broad format of the dialogue as a chance for the United States to clarify its overall stance toward China, that it is receptive to Beijing's emergence so long as it accepts and works within the existing order.
"Our goal is to see the rise of a China that is a positive force in international politics," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last week during a stop in Beijing.
It is a message that has frequently been lost in the blur of Beijing's myriad contacts with a variety of U.S. government agencies and the jumble of American responses.
China's appetite for buying U.S. Treasury bills helps America sustain its huge budget deficit, and China's low-cost goods are a godsend to budget-minded American families. But China is viewed much differently at the Defense Department and the CIA, where its military buildup and accelerating global reach are ranked among the most serious potential threats to the United States' security.
"You talk to the Pentagon and the Treasury about China, and it's like they have two different countries in mind," said Pei Minxin, an expert on the Sino-U.S. relationship at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "This administration must learn to send an unambiguous signal to China."
Still, consistency isn't easy in such a broad, often contradictory, relationship.