This week saw the third annual two-day US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which was this time held in Washington.
The Dialogue was established in 2009 by US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao, with US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan acting as the two countries’ representatives this year for the economic track, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and State Councillor Dai Bingguo handled the strategic element.
And the Chinese side appeared keen to give the impression that the meeting was a success, despite some tension following Clinton’s suggestion in an interview published Tuesday that China is ‘worried, and they are trying to stop history, which is a fool's errand.’
The official Xinhua news agency said in a commentary following the meeting that the Dialogue ‘is bound to usher in new opportunities for greater cooperation between the world's two largest economies.’
‘The third round of talks was seen as a great success, carried out to implement agreements and consensuses reached between the two heads of state during Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to the United States in January,’ the commentary noted.
‘A key achievement of the economic dialogue is that the two countries signed the US-China Comprehensive Framework for Promoting Strong, Sustainable and Balanced Growth and Economic Cooperation.’
Certainly, the Chinese side was keen to play down Clinton’s remarks, with a Foreign Ministry spokesperson telling a briefing to journalists in Beijing: ‘I think perhaps you have taken the quotes out of context, and ought to look at the full picture to understand the US appraisal of the talks' achievements…We have expressed our point of view many times on the relevant question…China and the United States have broad common interests.’
One of the risks with these kinds of events is that they end up being little more than talking shops, with few substantive developments. I asked Alistair Thornton and Sarah McDowall, analysts with IHS Global Insight, for their take on proceedings and whether there was any genuine progress.
In a note they said:
‘Despite being relatively light on deliverables, both sides stressed the overall positive tone of the meeting, describing them as key to increasing mutual trust and building on the success of Hu's visit to the United States in January. With tensions over a myriad of issues liable to flare at any point, the forum provides a useful tool to keep both governments communicating, particularly during periods of strain. In this instance, US officials appeared less critical of China's economic practices, instead lodging the bulk of complaints against the country's human rights record. ‘
They added that there had also been some progress on economic issues, including China agreeing to alter rules that link government procurement regulations to so-called indigenous innovation, which effectively locks out much foreign participation in domestic markets.
On strategic issues, Clinton noted in closing remarks that China and the United States had ‘agreed on the importance of cooperating in Afghanistan to advance common goals of political stability and economic renewal.’
The question of China’s role in Afghanistan is an interesting one, with some analysts, including our own Madhav Nalapat, suspecting that China sees real benefits if things go badly for the US in the country.
Writing for us last October, Nalapat speculated:
‘Because China has emerged as a serious challenger to US pre-eminence, it’s not surprising that one of the arenas of confrontation is Afghanistan. If this rivalry hasn’t received the attention that it’s due, it’s more than likely because China has typically attempted to fulfil its objectives there in as ‘silent’ a way as it can… It’s hardly a secret that the PLA would like the US military to exit from Asia, and what better way of hurrying this along than by ensuring that NATO is defeated in Afghanistan, the way the USSR military was?’
Clinton, though, insisted that the US and China share a wide range of common interests and challenges, and she noted that for the first time in these dialogues, ‘senior military and defence leaders from both sides sat down face to face in an effort to further our understanding, to develop trust, and avoid misunderstandings that can lead to dangerous miscalculations.’
Certainly, as Winston Churchill put it, it’s better to jaw-jaw than war-war, and it can only be a good thing that China appears to be setting aside its pique after US arms sales to Taiwan last year to engage in constructive military discussions.
And what does the future hold for the Dialogue? Thornton suggested to me:
‘Looking ahead, the importance of the S&ED will only take on added significance, although growing diplomatic and military assertiveness on the part of the Beijing regime may render it increasingly difficult for the US to navigate its way through China's complex political environment.’