By Mick Krever, CNN
If diplomacy is a tightrope walk, Gary Locke, as the U.S. ambassador to China, walks one of the thinnest.
To listen to the 2012 U.S. presidential candidates, China is an economic cheater, global bully, and human rights violator that the U.S. needs to wrestle under control.
In a debate last month with his republican challenger, President Barack Obama said that China is “an adversary, but also a potential partner.”
That may be the reality of a political campaign, but the reality now for the governments of the United States and China is that despite very real differences, the two countries – entwined economically and in foreign policy – need each other more than perhaps ever.
“We do have disagreements,” Locke told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Tuesday. “And we’re publicly and privately constantly urging the Chinese to reexamine some of their policies.”
Part of the difficulty for Locke and his boss, President Obama, is that China is itself undergoing a confusing once-in-a-decade political transition.
Xi Jinping, who just took over as the head of China’s Communist Party, has closer ties to the U.S. than most of his colleagues, having lived in Iowa in the 1980s.
Yet in the shrouded world of Chinese politics, his potential policies as president remain unknown.
In 2009, Xi took a thinly veiled swipe at the United States, saying there are “some bored foreigners with full bellies who have nothing better to do than point fingers at us.”
But last month, when he took over the chairmanship of the Communist Party, he took a tough line on China’s internal problems.
“The problems among our party members of corruption, bribe-taking, being out of touch with the people, undue emphasis on formalities and bureaucracy must be addressed with great effort,” Xi said earlier this month. “The whole party must be vigilant against them.”
Locke acknowledged that Xi’s remarks were “remarkable,” but for the U.S. ambassador the strategy is “wait and see.”
“I think there’s a lot of hope among the Chinese people,” Locke said. Xi has appointed a vice premier, “who’s a highly-respected individual, that the United States government and business people are very familiar with and have had a very good working relationship with,” to lead the anti-corruption campaign.
The internal issue on which China receives perhaps the most attention is Tibet, the region that has long struggled for independence.
In September, Locke made a rare trip to meet with ethnic Tibetans – human rights, he said, are “a fundamental part” of U.S. foreign policy.
“Obviously the United States is very concerned about the situation – the heightened tensions in the Tibetan areas, the deplorable self-immolations, and of course just the policies of the Chinese government at all levels.”
Understanding Chinese politics is often an exercise in examining the seemingly mundane and insignificant – in this case, analysts think they may have found a clue to Xi’s thoughts on Tibet in the fact that his father, a Mao-era revolutionary, was known to have worn a watch given to him by the Dalai Lama.
Walking his tightrope, like any good diplomat, Locke made sure to emphasize that China and the U.S. “have a good working relationship.”
“I really believe that as the two largest economies in the world,” he said, “China and the United States have a great opportunity to solve the problems not just facing the United States and China, but actually to provide leadership to the entire world.”
CNN’s Claire Calzonetti produced this piece for television.