Under George W. Bush power flowed away from the State Department, which never held the president's ear for long; and the Treasury Department, led by Sinophile Hank Paulson, took charge of China policy. Today, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner speaks fluent Mandarin, and he wants to hold on to the reins. But Hillary Clinton wants to reconsolidate foreign policymaking at the State Department, and she covets Asia.
Clinton took advantage of Geithner's many worries—all about the financial crisis—to establish herself as the executive branch's lead China hand on her first official visit to Beijing. She made policy and returned last week with a raft of headlines—for humanizing the secretary's role, for acknowledging line-of-succession questions in North Korea, and for explicitly downplaying human-rights issues. Those departures from existing policy showed she's in control, which she's especially eager to prove at a time when the appointment of high-powered presidential envoys has elicited questions about her authority. Clinton 1, Geithner 0.
Yet it's not clear she'll win. U.S.-China political relations have been stable since just after Bush assumed office, but the volatile issues are economic. Beijing owns more than $200 billion in T-bills, and its double-digit growth has buttressed American financial stability. Despite Clinton's best efforts, the Chinese will most want to hear from Geithner.