The annual Sino-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) seems to have caused a feeling of “dialogue fatigue” among some media and the public, as evidenced by the reduced coverage of the event when this year’s Dialogue was held in Washington last week.
The colossal meeting gathered officials from more than 20 government departments of each of the two countries for talks on issues ranging from international security and financing to wild life protection and wine authentication. A lengthy list of positive results was achieved during the talks. This year’s Dialogue, the fifth since it was initiated in 2009, yielded more than 100 deals. Even mavens would find them too lengthy, and stogy, to be easy reading, let alone ordinary readers.
Is the Dialogue really showing signs of “fatigue”?
The answer is negative. On the contrary, this year’s Dialogue showed signs of accelerated advancement.
During his visit to the United States in February 2012, Xi Jinping, the then Chinese vice-president, proposed to establish “a new type of major countries relationship.” The US side has had a positive response to the proposal since the beginning of this year. In the summit meeting with Xi at Sunnylands, California last month, US President Barack Obama expressed hopes for a “new model of cooperation” between the two countries.
However, analysts from both countries worried that the idea of “new type of major countries relationship” might end up in empty talks if no concrete moves were taken to bring it into practice. This year’s Dialogue supplied a timely answer to the doubts. Two lengthy lists of achievements in the strategic and economic talks delivered an encouraging message that both sides are at least engaged in serious negotiations around specific questions. The progress may not be dramatic but the talks were substantive.
In fact, the latest round of the Dialogue included efforts to “crack the hard nuts.” Some items in the achievement lists are of great value. In the economic sector, both sides decided to begin substantial negotiations on the Investment Agreement. If the negotiation succeeds, it will give a strong boost to the Sino-US economic ties as well as push forward on China’s economic restructuring. It will also deliver a positive message to the rest of the world: despite their differences, China and the US can deepen their cooperation through negotiation. In the talks about cyberspace security, the two sides exchanged thoughts and decided to hold one more dialogue before the end of this year on this most sensitive issue. Although the controversy may not disappear overnight, a first step has been taken to control the problem and prevent it from worsening. In addition to that, there are also positive signs in bilateral military relations. Plans are being discussed on establishing a mechanism for mutual notification about major military moves and on setting a code of conduct for military security between the two countries’ air forces and navies.
The Dialogue is not limited to the final two-day conference alternately held in Beijing and Washington. Long before that, the two countries hold a Strategic Security Dialogue, during which the network panel and climate change panel comprising staffs from both countries meet to discuss relevant issues in preparation for the final formal meeting.
As is widely known in diplomatic circles, a major bilateral conference like the S&ED that involves so many departments and target so many issues will not have much deep discussion in just two days. Substantive negotiations are held beforehand with most of the deals clinched well in advance. The two-day top-level dialogue functions more as a propeller pushing government departments of both countries to create more opportunities for cooperation before the next round of the Dialogue. It also checks the implementation of the deals reached in the previous round. Relevant officials of both sides will be engaged in these two processes most of the time during the year. Such an annual push is definitely beneficial for the steady development of Sino-US relations.
Therefore, it doesn’t matter whether the media and the public have grown weary of hearing about the Dialogue. What the bilateral relationship needs is the top leaders’ wise strategic management and concrete progress achieved by the departments in charge. What the Sino-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue has done just have met this need. It seems to me the S&ED mechanism has just got better off.
Da Wei is Director, Institute of American Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.