This week’s high-level talks between U.S. and Chinese officials on a wide range of issues highlighted the two countries’ continuing uneasy relationship, despite an expanding and intensive effort to build ties.
During the talks, the two countries made efforts to forge progress on issues from climate change to protection of the world’s oceans and persistent concerns about the value of the Chinese currency. But they found little common ground on more contentious issues, such as the South China Sea and recurring cyber attacks targeting the American government and businesses.
Officials from President Barack Obama to Secretary John Kerry and Treasury Secretary John Lew highlighted Washington’s deep concerns about cyber attacks. Officials also talked openly about territorial disputes in the South China Sea. China said it was willing to talk about cyber issues, but urged the United States to “stick to the facts.” It also urged Washington to be “impartial and objective when it came to the South China Sea.
Since 2004, Chinese and U.S. leaders have held regular, high-level talks to discuss issues of mutual concern, but analysts said the meetings have largely resulted in little concrete progress. Instead, officials emphasized the need for the two countries to keep talking and maintaining what was seen as the one of the world’s most important relationships.
But without substantial results, it is difficult to determine if the relationship is improving or worsening. This year’s meeting was a mixed bag, said William Choong a senior fellow at International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore.
He said that although the United States tried to raise some sensitive questions about the South China Sea and Chinese cyber hacking, the Chinese wanted to be seen as a great power and be given the recognition that they were engaged in high-level talks with Washington – instead of haggling over disputes.
“The Chinese, they’ve always tried to avoid the more contentious issues and therein lies the problem with the Strategic and Economic Dialogue talks,” Choong said. “If you’re not able to, number one, raise contentious issues and recognize them and number two, try to work at a kind of a workable solution… then in a sense you’re not going to go very far from where we are now."
Choong said that the two have made progress in at least keeping the channels of communication open. But for now they are largely talking past each other.
He said the relationship could go so much further if China would really engage the Americans on the contentious issues.
At the same time, the United States has its own challenges. While there are increasing calls to get tough on China particularly over the South China Sea, that is only one facet of an ever expanding relationship that the Strategic and Economic Dialogue highlights.
“The Obama administration is conflicted, and rightly so, because the Sino-American relationship is no longer a relationship just about the disposition of military forces in the Asia Pacific,” Choong said. “It’s far more multifaceted and comprehensive than that and the S&ED (Strategic and Economic Dialogue talks) is actually testament to that.”
Deteriorating or ascending
Despite the broad range of areas where the two countries are engaging, there is growing frustration and discussion in the United States about taking a different tact with China, perhaps a more confrontational one.
“I think it is more difficult in the United States policy circles for anybody to push the traditional engagement strategy with China, which was this whole idea of constructive engagement, that you engage and that everything will fall into place,” said Asia analyst Alejandro Reyes.
He said that while he does agree that maybe it was time to review the United States policy with China, he was not entirely sure the confrontational approach that some were suggesting was the correct one.
“I think that China should be challenged, for sure, in all aspects, and the United States should be similarly challenged,” he said. “But those who might suggest that we are moving toward some inevitable confrontation or conflict between the United States and China, I don’t think that is at all necessary or at all inevitable.”
During the meetings, officials on both sides highlighted ways in which the two countries were finding common ground. China talked about the “100 some things” that the two countries are in agreement on and Secretary of State John Kerry sought to play down concerns the relationship with China is rapidly deteriorating.
“I don’t think you heard any scintilla, not one tiny piece, of an indication of this downward spiral,” he said. “I think what you saw was ascending relationship with great clarity about the things which we’re going to cooperate. Even as there is some disagreement about how to approach one or two or three issues.”
But it has long been clear that the talks are about both.
The high-level diplomacy that takes place at the annual talks is openly acknowledged as a reflection of the importance of maintaining good ties, as well as the peril they might face if the relationship sours.
In recent years that engagement has increased on a wide range of topics and at the highest levels of government. Since Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to power, he and President Obama have met twice and will do so again in September when President Xi makes his first state visit to Washington.
Reyes said the way that the United States was engaged with China was like very few other countries in the world.
“The United States China relationship is now very much an ongoing daily work in progress and that can only in my mind can only be a good thing," he said.
Reyes said that although he understood the expectation for concrete results, it was unlikely big contentious issues could be resolved during the talks.
“The nature of diplomacy and international relations is not that you have deliverables all the time, but that you work at it and get to understand positions and move on and move forward," he said.