Dialogue is not a zero-sum game

By Alexander Huang 黃介正  / 

Thu, Aug 06, 2009 - Page 8

Late last month, Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo (戴秉國) and Vice Premier Wang Qishan (王岐山) led a large delegation of senior Chinese government officials to Washington to take part in the first US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED). Based on Taiwan’s longstanding bilateral friendship with the US and the recent improvements in cross-strait relations, we should pay close attention to the first senior dialogue between China and the US since US President Barack Obama took office.

Since establishing diplomatic ties in 1979, relations between China and the US have been fragile and in constant flux. Apart from leadership summits, most US-China dialogues have been carried out via bilateral discussions between different ministries. This practice has caused discrepancies between policy statements and implementation, leading to misunderstandings and distrust which have influenced overall bilateral relations between the two.

To deal with these problems, beginning in August 2005, the two sides decided to converge dialogues and use a cross-departmental format. By the end of last year, the US and China had held six “Strategic Dialogues” (the administration of former US president George W. Bush preferred the term “Senior Dialogues”), and five “Strategic Economic Dialogues,” in which problems were dealt with in a comprehensive way. After Obama took office, China and the US merged these two dialogues to a single track — the S&ED — to handle increasingly complex bilateral affairs.

The issues discussed in the first US-China S&ED included the global financial crisis and economic recovery, climate change, energy, environmental protection, regional security and development. It would be unrealistic to expect fundamental solutions in one round of discussion for such a wide range of issues. However, the S&ED was still significant and the following four points are worthy of close attention.

First, the US’ strategy toward China has been basically consistent over the years and has achieved certain results. During Bush’s time in office, former deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick said in New York in 2005 that it had been US policy for 50 years to “fence in the Soviet Union” while the goal of the past 30 years was “to draw out China” into the international community while encouraging it to become a “responsible stakeholder.” Today, the Obama administration is continuing to hold this strategic vision and refine it.

Second, China’s rise in economic and military power has received a great deal of attention in Washington. In past senior dialogues, China sent vice premiers to lead the delegations, while US ministerial-level officials led delegations. During the 2007 Strategic Economic Dialogue in Washington, then secretary of state Condoleezza Rice declined an invitation to a luncheon, asking former labor secretary Elaine Chao (趙小蘭) to represent her. But last year, Rice chose to commute more than one hour to Annapolis, Maryland, to personally participate in that dialogue. This time around, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton personally led the US delegation.

Third, the Department of State has regained a leading role in running US policy toward China. Over the past decade, Washington’s policy circle has sometimes jokingly said that the US’ China policy was run by the Pentagon for a long period after the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, and that in recent years policy has been run by the US Department of the Treasury because of the increasingly complex nature of bilateral trade issues. The current convergence to a single dialogue mechanism to some degree symbolizes Clinton’s efforts to reclaim a leading role in the US’ China policy.

Fourth, competition between the US and China is not a zero-sum game and will not necessarily harm Taiwan’s interests. During a speech given at the start of the S&ED, Obama said: “The pursuit of power among nations must no longer be seen as a zero-sum game. Progress — including security — must be shared.”

While many had expected that the Taiwan issue, and in particular the issue of arms sales to Taiwan, would be brought up in every US-China dialogue, veteran China watchers said Taiwan would not have been a focal point of the recent discussions. It is important to note that the schedules and representative levels of senior dialogues planned between Taiwan and the US have not been affected by the S&ED at all. By the same token, institutionalized cross-strait talks and negotiations should not be viewed as a zero-sum game as these will also pose no damage to US interests.

Alexander Huang is a non-resident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.