HONG KONG — The new U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s visit to China provides hope that the increasingly bitter stalemate in economic relations between the two countries may be amenable to change. The problem is that protectionists in Washington may not be willing to give Paulson the time he needs.

Paulson was welcomed in Beijing as an old friend, which is an old Chinese tactic. However, the Chinese clearly valued him and were listening intently to what he had to say. In an unprecedented series of meetings for a U.S. economic official, Paulson had met not only with his ministerial level counterparts but also with both President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. In the meeting with Hu, the two men talked with only their interpreters present.

The only tangible product of Paulson’s visit is an agreement by the two sides to create a “strategic economic dialogue.” While this is an excellent idea, the danger is that American politicians facing election in November will pooh-pooh the process and demand immediate progress.

As Paulson himself said at the end of his four-day visit, if critics back home judge him on the results of one trip to China, then “Heaven help” the United States.

Paulson’s background as a businessman — he was chairman of Goldman Sachs before taking the Treasury job and, in that capacity, had visited China dozens of times — gives him credibility. Moreover, instead of making demands of China as some politicians routinely do, he provides analyses to back up his opinions and makes it clear that his suggestions will actually benefit China as well as the U.S.

For example, instead of demanding that China open up its capital markets, Paulson told a student audience at Tsinghua University: “One of the most important, fundamental things this country could do is to develop very strong capital markets. And the right way to do that is to open up to competition.”

Paulson has only 2 1/2 years in his job before Bush leaves office in January 2009. But that is enough time in which to leave his mark. He clearly has the support of the president, who went along with his suggestion of creating a “strategic economic dialogue” with China. He also has the ear of the Chinese leadership. The question is whether he can convince his own compatriots, especially the politicians who see China as a convenient scapegoat for all America’s economic ills.

On this trip, he has won the first round, with both the American and the Chinese presidents willing to take personal part in the dialogue if necessary, though it will be led by Paulson on the American side and by Vice Premier Wu Yi on the Chinese side.

The danger now is that the Sino-American relationship may spiral out of control as a result of China bashing on the American side and the demonizing of the U.S. on the Chinese side.

If the Chinese believe that the U.S. is out to keep China weak to preserve its position as the world’s only superpower and Americans believe that China is intent on replacing their country as the world’s hegemon, then a conflict would become only a matter of time.

What is needed is the no-nonsense approach of a businessman who deals not in ideology but in facts.

Recent events — such as the increased weight of China’s voting rights in the International Monetary Fund along with those of South Korea, Mexico and Turkey — suggest that the U.S. wants to see China play a bigger role as long as it is willing to accept greater responsibilities.

With the departure of Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, Paulson will become the main person in the Bush administration responsible for China policy.

Paulson seems to emphasize overall changes in economic policy rather than simply focus on such issues as China’s trade surplus or the value of its currency. Such an approach is much more likely to find a receptive audience in Beijing.

In a speech before his trip, he said he would tell Chinese leaders: “We want you to succeed.” After all, he said, “more success for you means expanded markets, a higher standard of living and more jobs in the U.S. It also means lower prices for U.S. consumers and higher returns for U.S. investors.”

“The biggest risk we face,” Paulson said, “is not that China will overtake the U.S. but that China will not move ahead with the reforms necessary to sustain its growth.”

If this message can be delivered to China convincingly, it will go far to remove suspicions in Chinese minds. And the best candidate for delivering this message is Paulson.

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