U.S. officials are expected to raise concerns on issues including human rights, cybersecurity and China’s controversial construction project in the South China Sea, when the two countries launch the seventh Strategic and Economic Dialogue on Monday.
The three-day session in Washington will provide both countries an opportunity to focus on shared challenges and opportunities. The meeting, between the world’s two largest economies, will also help set the stage for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s September visit to Washington.
Daniel Russel, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said this year’s dialogue “promises further cooperation” on climate change.
In a Thursday briefing, he said Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew would chair a session focusing on ways the United States and China could work to reduce emissions and produce cleaner energy.
He said a separate session would focus on preserving and protecting the oceans.
The U.S. and China are also expected to discuss shared concerns on Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs.
South China Sea to be focal point
Russel said the U.S. delegation would use the dialogue to raise concerns about China’s construction on islands and reefs in disputed waters in the South China Sea.
The U.S. has become increasingly vocal in its opposition to the island-building project, which it now says takes up more than 809 hectares on once uninhabited atolls and reefs in the strategic waterway.
The U.S. is worried that China may restrict movement of foreign vessels and planes as it asserts its claims to the region’s Spratly Islands, parts of which are also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.
“There are potential issues with the freedom of navigation,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby.
“The most concerning aspect of them [the islands being developed by China] is the militarization of at least some of them, which, again, given their proximity to islands claimed by others in the region, just increases tension,” he said.
China has said its construction activities in the South China Sea are “lawful, reasonable and justified.” In a Tuesday statement, the Foreign Ministry also said the “land reclamation project” on some of the islands and reefs would be completed “in the upcoming days.”
Regional powers have been waiting to see if the U.S. will back up what it says is China’s unacceptable behavior in the South China Sea, said Asia analyst Alison Kaufman, during testimony to a House panel.
"I tend to think that if the U.S. did nothing - if China establishes these long-term claims and the U.S. continues to pursue relationships on all of these other domains - that countries in the region will say, 'Well, you must not really mean it.'"
The U.S., alone, has little leverage with China on this issue, said Bonnie Glaser, an Asia adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"This is really a global issue,” said Glaser.
“Countries around the world have a major stake in preserving stability in the South China Sea. Every country has shipping that goes through there,” she said.
During the talks, U.S. officials will also raise concerns about China’s suspected role in U.S. data breaches.
“We [the U.S. and China] are the two biggest consumers of the Internet,” said Russel.
He said cyberspace is one of the areas in which the “U.S. and China must cooperate.”
Earlier this month, U.S. officials said that as a result of a breach of the Office of Personnel Management’s computer systems, the records of about 4 million current and former government employees may have been compromised.
The source of the breach is under investigation but some analysts have suggested it is linked to China – an accusation the country’s Foreign Ministry has called “irresponsible.”
"I think this is one of the most niggling [bothersome] issues in the U.S.-China relationship," said Glaser.
She said the U.S. and China have made no progress on this issue in spite of the fact that it has been addressed at the highest levels of government.
Russel said U.S. diplomats would also use the dialogue to raise concerns about China’s human right’s record.
He cited concerns including the “constriction of space for civil society to operate in China,” along with restrictions on journalists and potential restrictions on non-governmental organizations.