News / Asia

US-China Talks to Open With North Korea High on the Agenda

On Monday, nearly 200 U.S. officials will begin holding talks in Beijing with their Chinese counterparts in the second round of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. The annual get together seeks to boost coordination of U.S. - China security and economic policies. During this year's talks, China analysts say concerns over rising tensions on the Korean peninsula will be a key focus of discussions and a possible source of disagreement.

U.S. officials say Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner are leading one of the largest groups of Cabinet and lower-level officials ever to visit China. Virtually all elements of the U.S. government will be represented, including key players from the Department of Defense and U.S. Pacific Command.

The talks on Monday and Tuesday will be co-chaired by secretaries Clinton and Geithner along with China's State Councilor Dai Bingguo and Vice Premier Wang Qishan.

During the meetings, Washington and Beijing will trade views on political and economic issues that at times over the past year have tripped up ties between the two countries.

China analysts say the meetings will give the two an opportunity to discuss ways that the world's largest and third largest economies can help stabilize the global economy as well as help Europe with its emerging financial crisis.

Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Beijing's Renmin University says Seoul's recent allegations that North Korea sank a South Korean warship in March, killing 46 sailors, will be a major topic of discussion.

"China's position obviously still has a huge distance from the Republic of Korea [South Korea] and the United States, so I think that the most important, most urgent and most disagreed topic is North Korea," said Shi.

Seoul calls the incident a "military provocation" and a breach of the 1953 armistice agreement that ended the Korean War. South Korea is also pushing for U.N. Security Council sanctions or other coordinated action against the North.

North Korea threatened Friday to cut off all ties with South Korea and scrap a bilateral non-aggression pact.

The North has rejected Seoul's accusations that it was responsible for sinking the ship, and denounced plans by the United Nations Command form a special team to investigate South Korea's claims. The command oversees the 57-year-old armistice between the two countries.

Secretary Clinton says the United States is working with Japan, China and South Korea to determine an "international response" to the incident.

China is North Korea's primary ally and financial supporter. So far, Beijing has maintained a neutral position on the conclusions of Seoul's report and urged both Koreas to show restraint.

Renmin University's Shi says that depending on how hard Clinton pushes the issue, China could give some kind of a minor concession and let the issue move on to the U.N. Security Council, but he doubts it could go further than that.

"It [China] is extremely reluctant to accept even a non-obligatory chairman statement condemning North Korea, let alone a sanctions resolution against North Korea," said Shi.

Lin Chong-Pin, a professor of strategic studies at Taiwan's Tamkang University says that in his view, Beijing has gradually been distancing itself from Pyongyang ever since the North carried out its second nuclear test in 2006.

"China has found that it is against its own national interests to support Pyongyang as it did [in the past]," said Lin. "China is moving away from that high-degree support towards a neutral ground."

Lin says that after the ship-sinking it is more important for China to promote regional security than give Pyongyang the support it gave in the past.

"And on top of all that, North Koreans keep telling the United States don't go around Beijing to talk to us, talk to us directly," added Lin. "So, I've heard that Chinese officials and even generals have been very unhappy with North Korea for quite awhile."

Lin says that if China gives too much support to the North, it could have an impact on its increasing regional influence in South Korea.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will travel to South Korea this week for a three-nation summit, which will also include Japan. The attack is expected to be a topic of discussion in those talks as well.

In addition to the worries about North Korea, U.S. officials are expected to raise concerns about investment policies in China that make it difficult for American companies to compete.

They will also discuss China's policy on valuing its currency, the Yuan, but that topic is likely to be downplayed as Washington has made it clear that it is waiting for Beijing to take the next move.

China has said that it will not be pushed on the issue and that any pressure will only slow its efforts to adjust its currency.

For its part, China is expected to push the U.S. on export controls that restrict its import of high-tech goods. It is also likely to remind Washington of the concerns it has about U.S. debt.

Analysts say it is surprising that Washington and Beijing are coming into the meeting without any major conflicts in front of them, especially given the turbulent state of ties only months ago.

Professor David Shambaugh, a China scholar at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., says relations began showing strain starting with President Barrack Obama's visit to China last year. Those strains increased with Beijing's 11-year prison sentence for human rights activist Liu Xiaobo last December, U.S. approval of an arms sale package to Taiwan, a visit by Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to Washington and tensions over trade.

"But that was the winter and then came spring," said Shambaugh. "And we've seen here in the last six weeks or so, clearly the two governments trying to bring some stability first of all back into the relationship that was in a kind of downward spiral."

Shambaugh says that looking for major agreements to come out of this week's meetings misses the broader purpose of the talks. He says that purpose is to get all of the players in the same room together to talk about global, domestic and regional issues.

"Don't expect too much tangibly to come out of the S&ED," added Shambaugh. "That's not what it is intended for, it is intended to be a broad gauged, cross-bureaucratic, and cross-issue dialogue that tries to overcome the vertical stovepipe bureaucracies in both government's, particularly this one [China]."

Indeed, some critics have noted that the gathering produces too few tangible results and note that officials on both sides already meet and talk with each other enough on a regular basis.

Shambaugh says he believes the meetings are still important, but notes the annual meeting could be improved with the establishment of follow-up working groups to make the Strategic and Economic Dialogue more than just a two-day on, rest of the year off, event.

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