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Foreign Policy

A Big Step Forward in U.S.-China Relations

Jul 19 , 2013

As a result of the recently concluded U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) the relationship between Washington and Beijing has not only stabilized, but has taken a major step forward—make that major steps. This year’s S&ED builds on the new momentum in the relationship spurred by the June presidential summit in Sunnylands, California.

David Shambaugh

The totality of S&ED agreements reached by the two sides July 11-12 is truly impressive—and they outnumber in quantity and quality those reached even during recent presidential state visits (2009 and 2011). The announced agreements—91 on the “strategic track” and a similar number on the “economic track”(although they were not itemized)—are ample testimony to the breadth and depth of the relationship, and they are concrete steps forward in building what Chinese President Xi Jinping has described as building a “new type of major power relations.”

Of course, the “devil is (always) in the detail” and there may well be a lack of bureaucratic follow-through in implementing such ambitious agreements. In recent years, similar well-intended Joint Statements (2009 and 2011) foundered soon after their issuance and failed to be implemented as intended. This time there seems to be a clearer level of bilateral commitment. A close reading of the strategic track document indicates that the majority of clauses are joint, i.e. “the United States and China affirm their commitment to…). In the past, the language was more often “parallel,” i.e. “The United States maintains that….”; “China maintains that…” Such parallel clauses are usually code words for disagreements behind the scenes. This time, much of the language (more notably on the strategic than the economic track) is joint rather than parallel. There are also numerous references that both sides “decided” to undertake various initiatives, while numerous memorandums of understanding (MOUs) and joint “action plans” were agreed and signed. Behind these linguistic nuances lies a new mutual strategic commitment and practical bureaucratic cooperation.

The other reason for optimism on implementation is that it appears the two sides have established and expanded the number of joint working groups that will operate throughout the year. New working groups include a Cyber Working Group, U.S.-China Climate Change Working Group, an International Economic Affairs Consultation, a Legal Advisors Consultation, a Dialogue on Global Development, an EcoPartnership Dialogue, an Aviation Energy Conservation and Emission Reduction Initiative, and continued rounds of previously established bilateral mechanisms. Meanwhile, other joint dialogues have been upgraded—such as elevating the Counter-terrorism Consultations to the vice-ministerial level and the Energy Policy Dialogue to the ministerial level. Prior to this year’s S&ED, the two governments had in existence around 90 such bilateral dialogues and mechanisms—after the meeting they now top 100. More importantly, as noted above, many will now operate year-round rather than once per year or in an episodic fashion. This will provide sustained momentum to the relationship between the annual S&ED and presidential meetings.

The sheer scope of topics covered and agreed are testimony to both the breadth and depth of the relationship. This includes security and military affairs, regional and global diplomacy, human rights, legal affairs and law enforcement, nonproliferation and arms control, customs issues and container security, supply chain security, fisheries and forests, wildlife trafficking and illegal logging, law of the sea and polar issues, marine science and meteorology, climate change, air and water quality, public health, development and aid, peacekeeping, nuclear safety, and a variety of energy-related issues. And these are only issues on the strategic track. The economic track also discussed and reached agreements in a wide range of specialized and technical areas as well: exchange rate liberalization, data transparency, global and regional financial stability, multilateral institutional cooperation (particularly in the IMF, APEC, and G-20), trade and foreign investment, intellectual property rights and protection of trade secrets, government procurement, anti-dumping, export credits and financing, market opening and distribution rights, banking regulations, and other issues.

My purpose to detail this list is not to bore the reader, but to provide a full sense of the extraordinary scope of the U.S.-China relationship today. No other inter-governmental relationship in the world comes close to the breadth and depth of issues of mutual concern to both nations and which they are working to address together. The China-EU and China-Russia and U.S.-EU relationships have their own extensive areas of dialogue and bureaucratic interaction—but they both pale in comparison to the institutionalization of U.S.-China relations today.

Institutionalization is one of what I call the “two I’s” in U.S.-China relations—the other being interdependence. These “two I’s” interact with the “two c’s” in the relationship: cooperation and competition. Institutionalization is the outgrowth of interdependence and the manifestation of cooperation—and all three elements serve to buffer and limit the competition in the relationship. To be certain, competition and mistrust do exist—at the strategic, economic, military, diplomatic, political, and ideological levels—will continue to, and are not to be falsely minimized. But, exercises like the S&ED are tangible expressions that the two sides now seek to manage the competition and forge cooperation where possible. That is the best news we have had in U.S.-China relations for several years, and is good news for global stability and development.

David Shambaugh is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs and Director of the China Policy Program at the George Washington University, a nonresident Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies and Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, and author of China Goes Global: The Partial Power (Oxford University Press, 2013).         

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