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Analysis: Keeping a check on America's banker

By Elise Labott, CNN Senior State Department Producer
  • China is increasingly in competition with the U.S. for influence and access
  • U.S. argues it isn't trying to contain China but is trying to understand it
  • The U.S. is pressing China to get involved in global issues
  • But Washington dreads the day Beijing is immune to its pressure

Editor's note: Since becoming State Department producer in 2000, Elise Labott has covered four secretaries of state and reported from more than 50 countries. Before joining CNN, she covered the United Nations. Follow her on Twitter at @eliselabottcnn.

Washington (CNN) -- "How do you deal toughly with your bank?"

The question Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked then-Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd provides a perfect window into U.S. anxiety about China's economic rise. The query, documented in a March 2009 diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks, illustrates the complex and convoluted relationship between the United States and China -- one that will largely shape the 21st century.

The two countries are bound economically. But it seems China has been dealt the stronger cards. It holds $1 trillion in U.S. debt, and the majority of the $400 billion in trade between two countries is largely Chinese products in American markets.

China's growing economy, and its subsequent increased power on the global stage, have made Beijing proud and, increasingly, more assertive. As it seeks to influence China's rise, the U.S. faces an uphill battle because this new economic reality has a profound effect on the balance of power between the two countries.

Read more about Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to the U.S.

China is increasingly in competition with the U.S. for influence and access. As you spin the globe, you'd be surprised to see where China's presence is felt -- from Africa where it craves oil and other resources, to an increased investment in Latin America in search of commodities and alternatives to its heavy investment in the U.S.

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But China's global outreach has been largely based on its own economic and political interest, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage argues. Beijing has shown no moral constraints in doing business with pariah states, he says. The Asian giant has dealings with human rights violators such as Burma, Iran, Venezuela, Sudan and Zimbabwe. Additionally, Beijing's investments in South America and Africa are undertaken to provide jobs for the Chinese, rather than locals, or using Chinese products for its projects, Armitage explains.

Which is why Armitage argues that China development power has fallen flat: Until China stands for something other than itself, Beijing will continue to be viewed in the international community as being selfish and its motives suspect.

The U.S. argues that it is not trying to contain China but is trying to understand it. China's swift military modernization, and its lack of transparency in doing so, has caused concern among the U.S. and its allies in Asia. Which is why Washington is pushing for closer military-to-military contacts and coordination.

As a self-declared "Pacific power," the U.S. has maintained the view that oceans don't separate it from Asia but join them together. But China's recent claims over the mineral-rich South China, Yellow and East China seas and its aggressive patrols in vital sea lanes between the Pacific and Indian oceans have sent the not-at-all subtle message that it isn't willing to share power in its backyard.

Beyond Asia, China's idea of "absolute sovereignty" is something that concerns the international community. Questions have risen about Beijing's use of space, the internet and maritime waters.

Read more on's China coverage

The American message to China is, if you want to be treated like a big power, act like one. U.S. calls for China to use its influence with North Korea and Iran are just the most obvious examples of where Washington is asking for Beijing's cooperation. Name a pressing global issue, and you will find the U.S. pressing China to get involved: from combating terrorism and nuclear proliferation to dealing with climate change to stopping piracy on the high seas.

The results of U.S. efforts to encourage China to demonstrate more global responsibility have been mixed, particularly on human rights. In a speech on China last week, Clinton argued that respecting human rights, whether that means releasing political prisoners such as Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, protecting the rights of minorities in Tibet or giving its people the freedom of expression and worship, will benefit the long-term peace, stability and prosperity of China. But there are few indications China is ready to have a serious human rights dialogue with the U.S. any time soon.

For now, China's concern for regime stability, continued economic growth, markets for its goods and access to resources around the world to fuel that growth continue to drive its policy choices. Which is why in the near term China is willing to continue to benefit from the U.S. taking the lead on diplomatic issues around the world and paying the political and economic cost.

But if China continues to consolidate its economic and political power, its assertiveness will likely grow, which will leave U.S. influence on China increasingly limited. Washington dreads the day Beijing is immune to its pressure and throws Clinton's famed question back at her. How can you get tough with your banker? The answer from China, the U.S. fears, is that you can't.