A month after US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) held a relaxed summit in California, their top officials convened in more staid surroundings in Washington yesterday to hash over a slew of security and economic issues that reflect growing ties, but also deep-seated differences between the world powers.
The fifth edition of the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue takes place in less fraught circumstances than last year’s event in Beijing, which was overshadowed by the escape of Chinese dissident lawyer Chen Guangcheng (陳光誠) to the US embassy in Beijing.
However, there is still plenty to argue about.
The Cabinet-level officials taking part in the two days of talks at the US Department of State and US Treasury will address Washington’s growing anxiety over cybertheft, the nuclear program of China ally North Korea, barriers to US trade and investment in China, and cooperation on tackling climate change.
US Vice President Joe Biden was to open the dialogue at 9pm (Taiwan time), and US Secretary of State John Kerry and US Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew will lead a group of more than a dozen government agency heads. A similarly heavyweight Chinese delegation is led by Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang (汪洋) and Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi (楊潔篪).
When Obama and President Xi met at the Sunnylands Resort last month they sought a more collaborative bilateral relationship. Xi has long spoken of establishing a new type of relationship that would avoid conflict between the established power, the US, and the rising power, China.
Yet translating that grand vision into action and reconciling the fundamental political differences between the countries is not easy. The summit was short on concrete outcomes and although Xi did express common cause with Obama in his opposition to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, that has yet to materialize into effective pressure on Pyongyang.
When the dialogue was first staged, the emphasis was on economy and trade. It has since morphed into a sprawling discussion of bilateral and strategic issues that some have criticized as making the dialogue too large. Officials will grapple with a wide variety of topics ranging from Iran’s nuclear program, to the Syrian civil war and human rights in China.
Washington’s old bugbear in its relations with China — the low value of the yuan and its impact on the skewed trade balance — has eased as the currency has appreciated in value against the US dollar. These days, the Obama administration is putting the most emphasis on cybertheft of intellectual property and trade secrets.
That was the subject of working-level talks on Monday, and on Tuesday, civilian and military officials discussed maritime security, missile defense and nuclear policy.
There appears little room for compromise on the thorniest security concerns, such as China’s attitude toward territorial disputes in the South and East China seas. However, in areas such as energy security and climate change, there is more hope of progress.
On the economic front, US businesses and lawmakers want Washington to push China harder to reduce barriers to US trade and investment, roll back subsidies for Chinese state-owned enterprises and make progress on negotiations for a bilateral investment treaty.
For its part, China is concerned about the security screenings of its companies as they increasingly look to invest in the US.