Tony Fratto: Clinton's Game of Chinese Checkers

Hillary Clinton
Photo by: Chuck Kennedy
Hillary Clinton

What does North Korea's nuclear weapons program have to do with U.S.-China economic relations?

What about Sudan? The fate of Uighurs in Guantanamo? Religious freedom in Tibet?

How about the future of Taiwan?

The answer is, almost nothing.

Here's a more important question: On which of these issues would U.S. negotiators compromise in order to gain progress on economic and trade issues with China?

That's exactly what Chinese negotiators must be trying to determine as Secretaries Clinton and Geithner hold their Strategic and Economic Dialogue with China in Washington this week.

The addition of a conjunction over the Bush Administration's "Strategic Economic Dialogue" is only the most trivial difference - meant to highlight the addition of the State Department to the talks.

Ironically, the grammatical flourish only highlights the reality that the new format compromises any real sense of strategic thinking to our economic relations with the Asian powerhouse.

Like Chinese checkers, the game becomes more a lot more colorful, but more complicated, too.

America's political agenda with China is critically important - regional security concerns, human rights and religious freedom.

But these issues have no place as bargaining chips in our economic dialogue. Political issues involve our vital national security interests and moral issues. However important our economic relations are, few economic or trade issues rise to the level of vital national security or moral issues. The political issues are, essentially, non-tradeables.

Secretary Clinton can hardly be blamed for grasping at a power lever at the expense of the Treasury. The Secretary of State is finding her role weakened in the Obama Administration by a Vice President active on foreign policy, a US ambassador to the UN with cabinet rank, and a dizzying array of special presidential envoys scurrying around the world with hot-spot portfolios.

The Chinese benefit from the new format, having greater interest in maintaining the status quo on both economic and political issues, and the added complexity ensures that progress on each less likely.

The US relationship with China is the single-most important bilateral economic relationship in the world, and it deserves to be carefully managed for the good of citizens in both countries and for the global economy. Secretary Clinton's power grab makes management of the relationship much more difficult.

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Tony Fratto is a CNBC on-air contributor and most recently served as Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy Press Secretary for the Bush Administration.