When Chinese officials and the administration of President Barack Obama begin discussions in earnest over issues at the heart of relations between the United States and China, the usual suspects will no doubt emerge: trade, human rights, Taiwan.
But increasingly, officials and scholars from both countries say, the global problem of climate change could become another focal point in the dialogue.
U.S. and Chinese leaders recognize the urgency of the issue, they say, and believe that a comprehensive solution is impossible without agreements between their nations, the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world.
Scientists and policy advisers from both China and the United States have contributed to a report to be released on Thursday that presents a blueprint for Obama and Chinese leaders to begin addressing together, as a top priority, the issue of climate change. The report is a joint project between the Asia Society and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, both based in the United States.
The origins of the report indicate that it could carry weight in the White House: It was produced by a committee led by Steven Chu, who is now the U.S. secretary of energy, and John Thornton, a professor at Tsinghua University, who has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the post of U.S. ambassador to China.
Scholars and policy advisers in China who support the proposal say talks over climate change could help build a cooperative relationship between the Obama administration and China. A central question is whether Chinese leaders will become so concerned with reigniting the lagging economy that they sacrifice environmental concerns in the process. But at least in public, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and other officials have said recently that the financial crisis actually gives China an opportunity to turn its growth model away from one that was environmentally unsustainable.
''I believe climate change may become a very important issue, which will put China-U.S. relations in a new framework in the 21st century because the stakes are high,'' said Wu Jianmin, a senior adviser to the Foreign Ministry and a former ambassador to France and other countries. ''We all understand we don't have much time left. We've got to work together.''
Among the Chinese contributors to the report are scientists from China's top research institutions, including Tsinghua and Peking University.
But some American officials and experts on climate change say that although Chinese leaders assert they are serious about the issue, it has been difficult to pin them down on setting caps or measurable standards on greenhouse gas emissions. Wen, in an interview with The Financial Times published on Monday, indicated that China does not intend to agree to any caps at a United Nations conference on climate change scheduled for December in Copenhagen.
''It's difficult for China to take quantified emission reduction quotas at the Copenhagen conference, because this country is still at an early stage of development,'' Wen said. ''Europe started its industrialization several hundred years ago, but for China, it has only been dozens of years.''
In October, Gao Guangsheng, head of the climate change office at the Chinese government's National Development and Reform Commission, presented a white paper outlining China's position on the issue. He emphasized at a news conference that developed countries should give 1 percent of their gross domestic product to developing countries to ''combat global warming.''
Gao also criticized developed nations for what he said was an unwillingness to transfer clean technology to poorer countries.
''These are all difficult topics to discuss and we have not yet come to agreement,'' he said. ''So there is a realistic basis to say that developed countries have not implemented their duties of technological development and transfer very well.''
The report to be released Thursday aims to help leaders in the United States and China build an amicable foundation. It recommends that the two nations convene a presidential summit meeting as soon as possible to draw up a major plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, then follow up by appointing senior officials and independent experts to various councils and task forces to develop concrete programs.
The report also lays out broad priority areas for cooperation between the United States and China: deploying low-emissions coal technologies, improving energy efficiency and conservation, developing an advanced electric grid, promoting renewable energy and quantifying emissions and financing low-carbon technologies.
Orville Schell, a veteran China journalist who helped supervise the writing of the report as director of the Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations, said he has seen in recent meetings that Chinese officials are beginning to recognize the need to take action on climate change.
''We have watched as officials in China have become much more receptive to the need to do 'something' about climate change, although they are still unwilling to set caps,'' Schell wrote in an e-mail message. ''We have also watched our own country molt out of stubborn opposition to a far more open willingness to recognize the scientific basis of the problem and the need to do something about it.''
Rich Richels, an economist at the Electric Power Research Institute focused on climate and energy, said the real challenge will be turning this or any other plan for China and the United States into prompt action on the ground.
''A road map is the wrong metaphor,'' Richels said. ''What we are really on is a racetrack. If we do not get the technologies in place soon for decarbonizing the economies of major emitters, we will lose the race against unacceptable climate change.''
Given trajectories in coal use, he added, the report was correct to stress the importance of moving swiftly to test whether large-scale capture and underground storage of carbon dioxide is feasible.
''New technologies will not magically appear,'' he said.
The American contributors to the report include several people who could play a China-related role in the Obama administration. Among them are Kenneth Lieberthal, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has just co-written a paper on U.S.-China policy on climate change, and Susan Shirk, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia in the Clinton administration. Like Thornton, both are rumored to be possible candidates for the ambassadorship in Beijing.
''The climate issue has moved to the top of the U.S.-China agenda, right below the global financial crisis,'' Shirk said. ''The Chinese recognize that the Obama administration is serious about the issue and are figuring out how to respond. It's a good opportunity to get off on a good track on U.S.-China relations.''
Zhang Haibin, an associate professor at Peking University who specializes in international environmental politics, said that China and the United States have historically had relatively weak cooperation on the climate change problem, but that Chinese leaders believe that could change under Obama.
''The U.S. government will show more political willingness,'' Zhang said, noting that Obama has mentioned climate change as an important issue. ''The U.S. government is more willing to promote Sino-U.S. cooperation on climate change.''
Zhang, who was a contributor to the report, added that there were several natural areas of cooperation - transfer of clean technology from the United States to China, for example.
But ''the two countries have different opinions on how to cooperate in that area,'' he said. ''The U.S. side emphasizes the market side; the transaction should be completely commercial. The China side says this should not be completely commercial; it should be on preferential terms.''
Besides those disagreements, any future talks on climate change run the risk of being derailed by conflict over more traditional topics of discussion - human rights in Tibet, arms sales to Taiwan and currency valuation, just to name three. Timothy Geithner's written remarks accusing China of manipulating its currency, made during confirmation hearings for the job of treasury secretary, have made Chinese leaders more anxious over the approach Obama will take to China. For all the talk of cooperation on climate change, the issue is still one of many on which the two countries are struggling to find common ground.