China now owns over half-a-trillion dollars in US government bonds, more than any other country, and Washington needs Beijing to continue buying them to help finance the national debt and the US$700 billion financial industry bailout.
And while China's economy is heavily dependent on exports to the United States, it is also a growing market for US products, making trade retaliation - long a threat wielded solely by Washington - more of a two-way street.
"The power shift in China-US relations is making them more interdependent," said Cheng Xiaohe, an international relations scholar at Beijing's Renmin University. "This next president will need to exercise greater caution."
When Clinton first ran for the White House, he made human rights an issue, accusing then President George HW Bush of "coddling" the communist dictatorship. But during his presidency, the administration moved to uncouple human rights from trade privileges - a milestone in normalizing ties between the two powers.
During GeorgeWBush's presidency, as Chinese exports boomed, China's trade surplus hit US$163.3 billion in 2007, becoming an increasingly fractious political issue.
In the Barack Obama-John McCain race, human rights figured early when Tibetan unrest flared and Obama called on Bush to boycott the Beijing Olympics. But the issue soon faded from his talking points, and when relations with China briefly resurfaced, the context was purely economic.
During the campaign, Obama described China as "neither our enemy nor our friend; they're competitors." He called for broad cooperation with Beijing while repeating the accusation that the trade surplus was stoked by a yuan kept artificially cheap.
The yuan has been an especially hot topic in Congress and may arise again as an irritant in relations.
On Thursday, a congressional advisory panel recommended Congress enact legislation to pressure Beijing into forcing up the value of the yuan, thereby making Chinese imports more expensive
China is a veto-holding permanent member of the UN Security Council and there are many other reasons why Washington needs Beijing's help--to maintain detente in the Taiwan Strait, strip North Korea of its nukes, and pressure Iran into cooperating with nuclear inspections.
Throw in the economy, and many expect Obama to take a mild approach toward Beijing on issues of human rights, freedom of speech and Tibet. That would be a mistake, argues Wei Jingsheng, the internationally renowned pro-democracy dissident whose imprisonment and exile came to define the difficulties of the US-China relationship in the 1980s and 1990s.
Wei, who now lives in Washington, DC, maintains that the root of the economic crisis lies in the trade imbalance with China, and that China's industrial might is built on underpaid, badly treated workers. China gets away with it because Western business doesn't want human rights getting in the way of profits.
Wei rejects the idea of China as the West's economic lifeline, saying Beijing would have a hard time saving its own economy and anyway wouldn't mind seeing the West failing.
"This expectation of China to save the West is only a dream," he said.
"But why is this dream fanned up so much? Because the big businesses in the West are pumping up this idea; they do not want to see Western governments take severe measures against the Chinese government."
He recalled the days when Western governments and media were focused on Chinese human rights abuses --"It is really because of their effort that people like me survived"--and urged Obama to renew the pressure by establishing a link between trade privileges and workers' rights.