- The Washington Times - Friday, July 31, 2009


The Strategic and Economic Dialogue between the United States and China wrapped up this week with statements about the importance of the U.S.-China relationship and the need to work together to address pressing global economic and security issues.

Building on the momentum of the Strategic Economic Dialogue (SED) established in the Bush administration, the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) will be the hallmark annual Cabinet-level dialogue between the two countries.

As it currently stands, the S&ED is intended to build relations and connections between key members of the two governments. As one U.S. participant put it, the two sides are “getting to know one another,” as part of an “effort to identify and then pursue a broad range of common interests with the Chinese.”

There is certainly frustration on the part of many stakeholders at the lack of focus and clear objectives acknowledged in this meeting. Critics can easily point to the lack of progress in getting China to open key markets to U.S. companies or the effects of export subsidies on U.S. manufacturers as well as the lack of political reform or development in human rights dialogues.

Some may question the value of the S&ED if it is not making a full court press on these and other issues. The Bush administration’s SED in many ways was successful in tackling well-defined economic concerns and in particular breaking down stovepipes and elevating discussion of economic issues in the Chinese government system to involve decision-makers that could actually resolve issues.

The accomplishments and outcomes of the SED raised expectations for the S&ED, though it seems unlikely that these meetings will produce the same volume of concrete outcomes.

The S&ED as set up by the Obama administration is responsive to a very different economic environment and different political dynamic on the U.S. side. The economic crisis and new domestic and global initiatives do not permit Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner to expend the time or personal political capital on the S&ED that former Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson spent leading his dialogue.

The unwieldy division of issues into two “tracks,” one for economic issues and one for seemingly everything else has created new stovepipes that suit the U.S. government interagency dynamic, rather than give the United States an advantage in discussions with Chinese interlocutors.

The lack of clear objectives and outcomes should not necessarily be seen as a detriment to the S&ED, though to make it a successful dialogue in the long run will require the United States to capitalize on its strengths and establish effective follow-up mechanisms.

Having a high-profile bilateral meeting where U.S. and Chinese officials can sit down as equals and discuss key issues across such a broad range of economic and security interests has definite benefits for the U.S. side, even in the absence of concrete public commitments.

Treating China as an equal partner and discussing concerns at a high level sets the right tone, creating an atmosphere in Beijing that could be favorable to U.S. interests. However, capitalizing on what both sides characterized as a successful set of meetings will require follow-up.

The S&ED is not a framework conducive to solving specific problems. The impossibly broad range of topics on the agenda refutes claims that there is focus to these discussions. To achieve concrete progress on key issues of U.S. concern, particularly multisectoral issues such as climate change or market access will require better interagency coordination on the U.S. side and the establishment of senior-level interagency teams that can engage Chinese counterparts on a regular basis, set clear objectives and track progress toward agreed-to outcomes, which are then recognized at annual confabs.

Without bilateral, high-level, trust-building interactions such as the S&ED, there is less likelihood that concrete progress can be made on specific issues, such as getting China to accede to the World Trade Organization’s government procurement protocol, elimination of certain export subsidies or gaining China’s cooperation to address challenges around the world such as Iran or Burma.

But the latest round of what promises to be an annual meeting will not solve these issues. Now that the talking has stopped, the work needs to begin.

Drew Thompson is the director of China Studies and Starr Senior Fellow at the Nixon Center.

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