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The real "special relationship"

Opinion: Sorry, Britain. China is America's new BFF.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi attend a news conference in Beijing, Feb. 21, 2009. (Guang Niu/Reuters)

NEW YORK — There are many ways to measure the quality of a relationship.

Durability, loyalty, profitability and compatability, to name just a few. In diplomacy, ties between states rest inevitably on the mutual benefit each perceives in the arrangement. Does the relationship enhance or diminish our influence in the world? Does the upside of good ties with the other nation exceed the downside? Does the partnership make you more or less secure?

All fine questions, and if supporting country X makes your high-flung public rhetoric look consistent to boot, it’s a match!

Yet a recent argument with my wife reminded me of a more basic, more fundamental way of judging relationships: Can you live without it? On that count, in the world of 2009, for the United States only one country comes anywhere near qualifying: China.

If that bothers anyone, so be it. But that's reality.

Beijing and Washington have manufactured a relationship so thoroughly co-dependent that the United States cannot now afford to break it off. As HDS Greenway put it this week, China now views America as Too Big To Fail, primarily because of the trillion dollars or so Beijing has sunk into the U.S. economy. Neither side dare move against the other, and each wants the other's economy to roar back to health. Thus is born the new "Special Relationship."

 Certainly, other countries may flatter themselves by thinking they hold up the other end of a "special relationship" with the United States. The case for China is made daily, by everyone from Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to everyone who buys anything at Wal-Mart. If you're still not convinced, let's examine the case for the rest of the world. I'll start with the also-rans:

  • Mexico's proximity and the fact that many of its citizens live and work, legally and illegally, in the United States, gives it a place in this debate. It is one of our most important trading partners, a part of the NAFTA, and a voice for moderation in Latin America. Drug violence there has focused the American imagination a bit more than immigration, and as someone at the CIA keeps telling journalists, a collapse in Mexico may be the largest threat to the United States in the world. But a relationship especial? No way, Jose. At least not while half of all Americans regard Mexicans as unwelcome visitors. Without Mexico, we cut our own lawns. But I do anyway, and I survive.