On 3-4 May 2012 the United States and China convened their 2012 Strategic and Economic Dialogue (SAED). It had never been more needed. As the two powers and governments met in Beijing for two days of intensive discussions and negotiations over a wide range of complicated issues, much uncertainty surrounded the relationship. Moreover, long-time observers and participants in Sino-America relations report a distressing “trust deficit” in the current relationship. This distrust on each side is compounded by domestic, regional, and global uncertainties.
Both countries are in the midst of domestic political transitions—which will culminate in the autumn. A presidential and national election campaign is underway in the United States, while China prepares for its 18th Party Congress and sweeping leadership transition. In the background of these pending leadership changes, lie deeper systemic political realities.
On the American side, the political gridlock between the Republicans and Democrats has never been tighter—nor has the ideological gulf between them been greater. The American political system is showing serious signs of dysfunctionality—symptoms that will only be exacerbated by election year rhetoric and posturing.
On the Chinese side, the removal from office of Politburo member and Chongqing populist politician Bo Xilai for “serious disciplinary violations,” and the detention of his wife on suspicion of involvement with the murder of a British national, has rocked the nation and impacted the hooped-for smooth leadership succession. While trying to control and limit the fallout from the messy Bo Affair, the case raises many deeper concerns about the degree of corruption and illicit practices in ruling party-state. In the view of many outside observers (and no doubt many in China as well) the Chinese Communist Party is facing a severe test of its legitimacy.
The recent escape from house arrest by blind activist Chen Guangcheng, who has apparently taken refuge under U.S. diplomatic protection, adds a further complication to the fluid atmosphere between Beijing and Washington.
Another factor that casts a shadow over the SAED include America’s recent strategic “pivot” to Asia, in which the U.S. is strengthening its bilateral diplomatic and military ties throughout the region. The “pivot” comes against the backdrop of deepened suspicions and heightened tensions between China and some of its neighbors. Not surprisingly, Chinese commentators (and likely government officials) interpret America’s strategic reorientation to Asia as part of a “containment” policy against China. They are correct that there is a “China rationale” underlying part of Washington’s strategy—but they are incorrect that it amounts to containment, and they do not understand that other Asian nations have invited the United States to shore up its presence across the region precisely because of their growing concerns about China.
These factors lie in the background, but they impinge and impact the SAED and the fluidity of the broader Sino-American relationship. Many observers of the relationship have grown increasingly worried in recent months that the overall trajectory is not in a healthy direction. The competitive elements in the relationship are growing now becoming primary, while the cooperative ones are secondary and declining. The areas of cooperation are narrowing and inter-governmental meetings (like the SAED) meant to forge cooperation are becoming more pro forma and acrimonious. Mutual distrust is pervasive in both governments, and one now finds few bureaucratic actors in either government with a strong mission to cooperate (the educational sphere is one exception).
It must be said that the institutionalized dialogues have grown increasingly ephemeral and episodic, while the deeper competitive forces threaten to overwhelm the efforts for cooperation. Indeed, the mechanisms themselves seem to have changed from their original purpose to forge cooperation to forums for discussing differences and managing competition. In virtually every subject area of the two governments 60+ dialogues, substantive differences and frictions are now evident. What these dialogues really amount to is consultation, where each side informs the other of its (differing) preferences and policies, rather than forging real cooperation or coordination. In these intergovernmental dialogues, as well as high-level diplomacy, it seems that both sides attempt to present a façade of cooperation and harmonious exchanges, but under the surface of these dialogues—indeed the entire relationship—there exists deepening distrust. Sometimes the differences bubble to the surface and transcend the protocol of diplomacy. The two governments simply do not agree on how to approach many international problems, and powerful domestic interests in both countries limit the ability of both to manage bilateral problems.
Absent a galvanizing mutual threat, which has not existed for many years, the cooperative dimension of relations has diminished and the competitive realm has enlarged. While increasingly competitive, though, the two powers still coexist in a deeply interdependent fashion. Thus, the overriding policy task for Washington and Beijing is to manage the competition and maximize the cooperation where possible, so that the relationship does not lurch decidedly in an adversarial direction. This year’s SAED was a perfect place to start.
The writer is Professor and Director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.