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US Hopes China Dialogue Improves Understanding

FILE - Secretary of State John Kerry.
FILE - Secretary of State John Kerry.

Hundreds of Chinese diplomats are in Washington this week to take part in the Seventh U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue to discuss issues such as cybersecurity and maritime tensions.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew are hosting the Seventh U.S.-China Strategic Dialogue, while Kerry hosts the Sixth Consultation on People-to-People Exchange.

"We are looking to expand our bilateral cooperation on many global challenges such as climate change, development, humanitarian assistance, pandemic response and ocean conservation. We will also have the change to coordinate U.S. and Chinese policies on regional issues like Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Afghanistan, and we will also address areas where we have ongoing differences such as maritime disputes, cybersecurity and human rights. As we have said many times, the United States is firmly committed to improving its relationship with China," said State Department spokesman John Kirby.

He said that while the two countries disagree on many points, they recognize there are many areas for mutually beneficial cooperation. Kirby describes the dialogue as one of the most important of several mechanisms for tackling disagreements and advancing mutual interests.

Monday, U.S. and Chinese officials held what Centers for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) China scholar Bonnie Glaser called a strategic security dialogue, encompassing thorny matters of maritime tensions, cybersecurity, military-to-military relations, missile defense and nuclear and space issues. She expects little to be accomplished, but still thinks the process valuable.

"This is a process of working through issues identifying where there are differences, how differences can be managed," said Glaser.

The second day of talks will focus largely on economic matters, such as the Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) being negotiated. Glaser said many obstacles remain and it is uncertain whether the treaty will be finalized before President Obama leaves office in early 2017.

The third day will take up strategic matters such as North Korea, Iran and Afghanistan, where Glaser said there is general agreement. She added that cybersecurity will overshadow the discussions.

Earlier this month, officials at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) announced that a four-month massive data breach had been discovered in April, and that as many as four million personnel files of current and retired federal employees may have been compromised. Investigators said that it appeared the attack originated within China.

Kirby said no allegation has been levied against any actor, state or non-state, and it remains under investigation.

"This is a new and dynamic domain. It is one in which international norms and sets of parameters are not well established. And again, we’ve made our concerns clear not just to China, but to other state and non-state actors. And, I think it’s an area where, while we don’t necessarily always agree on the approach to cybersecurity and cyber defense, it is certainly one of those areas where there is room for better cooperation and better dialogue and more transparency," said Kirby.

Glaser, quoting Assistant Secretary of State Danny Russell, said cybersecurity is such a major concern it will be taken up on all three days. China ended cybersecurity discussions following the U.S. indictment in May 2014 of five Chinese military personnel on economic espionage and other offenses for hacking into the computer systems of US nuclear, metals and solar companies. She said the latest hacking is being discussed.

"I would imagine the Chinese are going to want to see proof of attribution. I don’t know whether the United States is will to share sources and methods on that issue, but I think the US is going to try and convey to China that, if it has done this, it has overstepped the boundaries of what is acceptable," said Glaser.

Glaser said there is added importance to this round of the dialogue because it will help set the stage for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the United States in September. And, she said, China appears to be sending a signal it wants to lower tensions, noting China’s announcement this month that it is nearing completion of its construction of artificial islands in the disputed Spratly Islands of the South China Sea.

"But, the United States has not received that message very well because the United States is worried about the militarization of those islands," added Glaser.

She said that so far China has not made clear what its intentions are for those islands, but conversations on the matter continue.

Glaser rejects the view that relations are fated to go in a negative direction. She said both countries have wise leaders, vast people-to-people exchanges and economic interdependence. She said the policy of engagement employed by eight presidents remains the right one for the United States and China.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang said he looks forward to “candid discussions with US colleagues to achieve broader consensus, better solutions and mutual success.” He said the dialogue “has helped both countries identify and expand common interests and achieve mutually beneficial outcomes.”