A bridge over troubled waters

By David Shambaugh
0 CommentsPrint E-mail China Daily, May 28, 2010
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The second US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) ended a couple of days ago and the 200-strong American delegation has left Beijing after two days of intensive talks with their Chinese counterparts. How should we judge these important talks?

First, after a long winter of difficulties, the S&ED was for China and the US another step - a very important step - toward coordinating efforts to stabilize and improve bilateral relations. The talks followed an exchange of visits by senior officials, presidential telephone calls, President Hu Jintao's presence at the Nuclear Security Summit (and a lengthy private discussion with the US president), Barack Obama's meeting with new Chinese ambassador Zhang Yesui, the postponement of the US Treasury Department's report on the yuan, and China supporting a new round of sanctions against Iran. Each step added momentum to bilateral ties after a period of significant strain.

Second, the sheer size of the S&ED is unprecedented in any bilateral relationship. No two governments have ever met across such a wide range of bureaucracies to discuss the totality of issues affecting bilateral relations.

This is important because bureaucracies in almost all countries subvert the building of relationships, as they have their own agenda that may conflict with national interests and leaders. Bureaucracies are also, by nature, vertical entities. One virtue of the S&ED is that it brings into the same room bureaucratic officials from the two governments to discuss crosscutting issues horizontally. This serves to energize the bureaucracies into forming broader coalitions, both within and between the two governments.

Third, the impressive scope and range of issues on the S&ED agenda are a reflection of the complexity of Sino-American ties today. The relationship operates on three levels: bilateral, regional, and global. The two days of intensive discussions covered individual issues at all the three levels.

To progress in cooperation, the China-US relationship has to engage in an incredibly broad and long agenda. It's true that agreements and identical views on all (or even most of) the issues will be illusive, because the two governments still have very different national and international interests, worldviews, values and political systems. But unless all the issues are placed on the table, the relationship cannot mature fully and forge cooperation.

Fourth, we should remember that the S&ED is a forum for dialogue, not negotiations. It is intended to place China-US ties in macro perspective, not necessarily to negotiate and agree on specific issues. Though this kind of wide-ranging dialogue is necessary, the two sides should seriously consider forming a series of joint working groups that function throughout the year to address specific subjects and thus pave the way for agreements that the S&ED would approve and implement.

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