Official: U.S.-China Relationship 'More Complicated' Than Was Soviet Rivalry

Senior official says debt, common interests mean a delicate dance, unlike Cold War rivalry with Soviets.

By + More
NEW YORK - DECEMBER 16: The flag of the People's Republic of China hangs next to an American flag outside the Goldman Sachs headquarters building December 16, 2008 in New York. The storied financial firm on December 16 posted its first loss since going public in 1999. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

A senior State Department official calls managing relations with China Washington's top foreign policy challenge, placing it ahead of combating terrorism and preventing a nuclear-armed Iran.

Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, calls the Chinese relationship "the most important issue for U.S. foreign policy," further signs that the Obama administration's strategic shift toward the Asia-Pacific region is well under way.

While some in foreign policy and national security circles regard China in the same light as the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Campbell told a Center for a New American Security-sponsored forum in Washington that is not a proper comparison.

[Photo Gallery: The Life of Hosni Mubarak.]

The U.S.-China relationship "is much more complicated and much more sophisticated" than was the intense competition between Washington and Moscow, Campbell says.

One reason: China is the holder of much more U.S. debt than any other nation or institution. One quip making the rounds in Washington on that matter is if Beijing got tough on Washington, not only would it cripple the United States's ankles but it would do permanent damage to its own knees.

Another, Campbell says, is something most China hawks miss: U.S. and Chinese officials work closely on a number of issues. Why? "Why do not have a choice," Campbell explains, adding: "We need to be involved in a sustained effort with China."

John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at or follow him on Twitter. 

  • Military Soon Will Pay More for Former Soldiers Than Current Ones
  • What Would It Take to Finally Nab Al-Zawahiri?
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy