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Talks Mark the First Step in a Long Process
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The first Sino-US strategic economic dialogue opens today in Beijing, the highest-level regular dialogue mechanism introduced since the establishment of a diplomatic relationship between China and the US in 1979.


Both sides have attached great importance to the talks. Just have a look at the powerful line-ups: Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke and secretaries holding other portfolios on the US side. Vice Premier Wu Yi, National Development and Reform Commission Minister Ma Kai, Minister of Commerce Bo Xilai and others on the Chinese side.


The staging of the top-level bilateral talks, which aim to help clear away misunderstanding and reduce friction, sends out positive signals. This, however, merely marks the first step in the long march toward settling a host of chronic problems haunting the Sino-US economic relationship.


Both sides hope to promote sustainable development of their own economies through the strategic economic dialogue. Paulson made his position clear in a Washington Post article on December 11: "My highest priority as treasury secretary is the long-term strength and competitiveness of the US economy." It follows that the primary purpose of his tour to Beijing for the strategic economic dialogue is to assure the healthy development of the US economy.


Doubtless, the Chinese delegation's primary concern is understandably China's economic interests, rather than helping the US resolve its economic problems.


This is a dialogue based on equality and fairness. Both parties are entitled to have their own concerns and expected goals. Although the two parties have reached some compromises on the agenda beforehand, the agenda and the key tone of the talks ought not to be dictated unilaterally by one party.


According to media reports, the talks will focus on discussions about the Chinese currency's revaluation, redressing the US' reversed trade balance and the protection of intellectual property rights. All these are issues the US is most eager to address, on which Washington expects China to make compromise pledges.


From China's point of view, however, boosting domestic demand through the upgrade of its industrial structure and nurturing famous Chinese brands via knowledge sharing is an urgent matter. In addition, China would be pleased to see the US ease its control over high-tech exports to China, or at least refrain from setting up new stumbling blocks in this regard. All these issues need to be talked about with the US delegation.


However, the Western media has, knowingly or unknowingly, created the false impression that the Sino-US strategic economic dialogue is to be a hearing dominated by the US. It is expected to primarily address problems in the US economy that will be blamed on China.


In this atmosphere, the US delegation seems to be on a punitive expedition, eager to make China answer for its "wrongdoing."


Now that top Chinese and US officials are about to sit down at the negotiating table to have the dialogue for the sake of their economic interests, the outcomes can be roughly divided into three categories. First, one party gets what it wants and the other side does not. Second, the two parties both achieve their expected goals, both emerging from the talks winners. Third, the two sides fail to get what they want, both becoming losers.


In fact, the real outcome of the dialogue is not expected to fit exactly into these three categories. Instead, the result will mirror the fact that both parties will have to compromise and get only part of what they originally expected.


In another scenario, each party would resort to pressuring the other side to force it to completely meet its demands. But in reality, pressuring and other heavy-handed measures are no longer workable today. This is why the Sino-US strategic economic dialogue has been introduced.


Despite that, the Sino-US economic relationship is still an imbalanced one, with the US as the economic big brother, and both countries becoming increasingly dependent on each other economically. Cooperation means that both will be winners. Confrontation would make both losers.


Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland says that a balance of economic terror exists between the US and China. Just as the doctrine of mutually assured destruction restrained the Soviet Union and the US during the Cold War, the prospect of mutual financial ruin keeps both the US and China loosely in check. In the opinion of this author, this kind of "terror balance" facilitates the stability of Sino-US economic relations in the current situation.


According to official Chinese statistics, Sino-US trade volume in 2005 hit US$211.63 billion and China is the US' fourth-largest export market and second-largest commodity supplier to America. US statistics show that in 2001 and 2005, US exports to China increased 118 percent, growing an average 21.5 percent each year.


According to Morgan Stanley research, in 2004 alone, cheap Chinese goods helped US consumers save a total of US$100 billion and the trade with China created 4 million jobs in the US.


By February 2006, China's foreign exchange reserve had reached US$853.7 billion, of which US$242.2 billion came from the purchase of US treasury bonds.


In the face of all this, the US cannot afford to threaten sanctions against China at will as it did in the 1990s. Conversely, the last thing China wants is to confront the US economically, taking into account that the country largely relies on the US economy for its development.


Logically, therefore, the gravity of the Sino-US strategic economic dialogue lies in finding out the areas where Chinese and US economic interests converge. This is also the only way out for the Chinese-American economic relationship.


The two parties should, therefore, put all their expectations and goals on the table, analyze the disputes and common ground and finally find a solution that is acceptable to both. In this process, neither party is expected to have its own way 100 percent, pushing the other side to make unilateral concessions.


Although Paulson frequently talked with people from all circles in the US and wrote articles before he left for Beijing to lower the US public's expectations of what would come out of the strategic economic dialogue, US media and political figures still gave him a clearly defined list of what the US side wants from the dialogue, pressuring China to make specific pledges and concessions. This gives the impression that the US delegation is coming to China with a stick in its hand. If the US delegation wants substantial outcomes, they should first of all readjust their frame of mind.


(China Daily December 14, 2006)


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