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Obama's climate deal proves China is the biggest foreign policy success of his presidency

President Obama at a press conference with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing
President Obama at a press conference with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing
Feng Li/Getty

President Obama's foreign policy team doesn't get much credit these days. It's been derided for its performance on Iraq and Syria, and to a lesser degree on Ukraine and Russia, so much that there is now open speculation about which senior White House officials will get fired. So credit where credit is due: Obama's trip to Asia is only half-over and it's already become a very real, and substantially important, foreign policy success.

He struck not one but two important deals with China. First, he announced a technology trade deal that's a big win for US businesses and a relaxation of US-China visa rules that are expected to substantially boost travel and tourism between the two countries. (Chinese tourism to the US already generates $20 billion annually.) But the even bigger "deliverable" from the trip — that's policy jargon for a concrete accomplishment or agreement — is the landmark US climate deal with China. Read here for the terms of the deal and why it's so significant for the global effort on climate change.

The climate deal is arguably as significant on pure foreign policy terms as it on environmental terms. It sets a precedent of the US and China not just cooperating on a difficult issue — as a very rich country and a poorer country, their climate policies are necessarily at odds — but cooperating on global leadership.

The climate deal matters for much more than just climate

Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry confer during a Beijing meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping (Petar Kujundzic -Pool/Getty)

There's been global deadlock on climate for years, and, as top polluters, the US and China have typically been a big part of the problem. Neither has been very eager to voluntarily cut emissions, and the two countries have long disagreed over climate issues. For either the US or China to individually get ahead of the global deadlock and lead by example would be important for setting an international example. For them to do this together sets an important example on climate — if the US and China can find a deal, so can other countries.

But it's even bigger than that: it's a very promising precedent of the two countries working together as global leaders on difficult issues. Over the next century, the US and China are going to face many, many more global issues on which they disagree, but on which they will both be better off if they cooperate. Indeed, the world as a whole is better served by Chinese and American cooperation and joint leadership. That's why even Chinese state-run media is trumpeting the climate deal as "highlight[ing] a new type of major-country relations."

To understand how big of a deal that is, you have to understand that the US and China are typically outright adversaries on global issues, and for decades have seen one another as rivals or competitors. This fear and suspicion has been stronger on the Chinese side; the Communist Party leadership has long believed that the US is bent on its destruction. The default position isn't just for the US and China to not cooperate; it's for the US and China to be openly working against one another.

For China, enmity is still the default in many ways, or at least the more comfortable position. That's apparent this week: even as China is cutting deals with Obama, it's amping up anti-Western rhetoric in state media and curbing American cultural influence as a hostile force. And Obama awkwardly discussed both Hong Kong and Tibet, saying the US was not fomenting protests in the former and does not support independence of the latter. Obama has drawn criticism for all of these, but they highlight just how important and difficult it is for the US to find agreement with China where it can, and how easy it would be for the two countries to slide back to antagonism.

Obama sees China as his most important foreign policy challenge. He's right.

President Obama on the Great Wall in 2009 (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty)

Obama came into office believing that China was becoming too important in the world to ignore, that a cooperative China would be far better for the US and the world than a hostile China, but that getting Beijing to work with rather than against the US would be excruciatingly difficult. At the same time, Obama has hedged against a rising China by building ever-closer US alliances with China's neighbors, deepening US influence in Asia without making China feel so threatened it would resist Obama's outreaches.

Obama's China strategy was and remains an extraordinarily ambitious and difficult foreign policy effort. More than that, it's an extremely important one — arguably more important than ISIS or any of the other half-dozen crises to emerge from the Middle East since Obama took office. Yes, ISIS is a serious problem, but one that is limited to the turmoil in the immediate Middle East, and perhaps the threat of a terrorist attack.

The China problem is one that could shape the entire future of Asia and, as China continues to rise, perhaps the world. How China and the US interact could end up either affirming or undermining US global leadership, and the very liberal international order that is the foundation of American power in the world. The stakes are less clear day-to-day, but they are just enormous.

"If we get China wrong, in thirty years that's the only thing anyone will remember," a senior US diplomat told the New York Times' David Sanger in his book on Obama's foreign policy. That is how the Obama administration thinks about China and it is entirely correct.

This is about setting the next century

A Chinese submarine surfaces off the coast of Shandong (Guang Niu/AFP/Getty)

The climate deal and other US-China agreements are not, in themselves, going to secure a long-term American-Chinese partnership. Nor are they going to prevent China from at times competing with, or outright antagonizing, the US. No single set of deals is going to determine the entire future of US-China relations, which could always collapse under the right set of disagreements over the next year or the next decade.

These deals, though, are a promising — and, viewed in the context of the last 30 years, astounding — precedent in setting the baseline of the relationship between the world's two most important countries. That relationship is going to be one of the defining issues in the next century of human history; it will still matter crucially for the US and the world long after ISIS and its successors have disappeared.

Getting the baseline from the open hostility of the past to this degree of cooperation is a huge achievement, and one that could hold for decades, with consequences for the United States and the world that are near limitless in their potential implications.