BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — When the holiday season ends and Barack Obama takes the U.S. presidential oath of office next month, will he notice that life has become less merry and more naughty and un-nice? This brilliant American politician will soon become aware that suddenly everyone wants to be his friend.

But as outgoing President George W. Bush can tell him with authority, the concept of true friendship and Washington political life is all but oxymoronic. In the nation’s capital, most political players can count the number of genuine friends on the fingers of their hands and still have almost enough spots left over for the starting lineup of the Washington Redskins.

This is almost as true in international relations as in the domestic political sphere. Friendship inside the Washington beltway is more a shifting mosaic of ad hoc political alliances — not much more stable than desert sands in a windstorm. In international relationships, a measure of friendship can be obtained due to the relative immobility of national interests: They do change, but only slowly, and almost always with warning.

Obama will be beseeched with overtures for political intimacy. The most unabashed applicants will come from Europe and the Middle East. None is to be believed. European friendship has always been treacherous and little needs to be said about the Middle East — where even the government of Israel has spied on us, Saudi Arabia is fertile soil for terrorists, etc., etc.). And Latin America, as usual, is a political basket case.

Instead, Obama should be sensitively attuned to good-faith overtures for friendship from certain leaders in Asia, particularly from a most unlikely capital indeed, Beijing.

Here’s why: China is undergoing a measure of unholy hell right now. The growth rate is dropping with implications of social disruption as ominous as the hulking likeness of Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square. The scale and complexity of China is such that, when President Hu Jintao looks for someone to talk to, hardly anyone on the face of the Earth belongs in the same league of intense difficulty, except for Obama.

For the last 100 years or so, the U.S. has dominated the world stage as a national player in almost everything, including economy, culture and technology. It has also had the most global ambition. The consensus call now is that the U.S. has to start downsizing the scope of its ambitions. At the same time, China will be expanding in every sense, except possibly in territoriality.

This duo-dynamic is reshaping the world. Few countries can relate, emphasize, sympathize, understand and indeed shape what is going on. Probably this is understood, however quietly, by President Hu, sitting precariously atop a sprawling nation where more than one out of every five human beings lives.

This fateful Sino-U.S. commonality is dramatically underscored by the current global economic crisis. Never have China and the U.S. been in the same deep soup together — at least not since the Japanese expansionism of the 1940s. This is why Hu and Obama need to achieve a special relationship at this pivotal moment.

Forget reaching out to France’s Nicolas Sarkozy or Canada’s Stephen Harper or even Britain’s Gordon Brown. These are small fish in a giant pond; it is the rare whales that need to get along. The Sarkozys of the world don’t have enough spout or clout to help Obama ease through this crisis. But Hu does — and vice versa.

In this sense, the two leaders of the two leading giant nations are meant for each other. Hu needs Obama as much as Obama needs Jintao. Each wastes their own time to the extent that they are not grabbing for a quality meeting with each other. Huge differences in value systems and history divide the two great nations, to be sure, and make cooperation difficult. But the global sailing will be smoother when they share the rudder, especially in such perfect-storm financial weather as we have now.

This means, on the U.S. side, that President Obama listens with a great measure of skepticism to those advisers who claim that the Middle East needs to occupy space No. 1. He should understand that, while perhaps he walks on water, the desert sands of the Middle East suck every Westerner down who decides to dance on it.

The real opportunity for friendship and deeper alliance-building lies with China. This isn’t because the People’s Republic is either good-natured or benevolent. Like the U.S. or any other nation, it has its share of narrow-minded national interests and internal moral inconsistencies. It’s because China and America are the only two powers right now with the commensurate capacity to relate to one another fully, frankly and meaningfully. Obama hasn’t said much about China or perhaps even thought deeply about it. But he should start now, before it’s too late.

Properly managed, Sino-U.S. relations offer the largest upside potential for improvement of any bilateral relationship in the world.

Veteran journalist and syndicated columnist Tom Plate is a member of the China task force of the Pacific Council on International Policy. © 2008 Pacific Perspectives Media Center

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