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Foreign Policy

Reading the Tea Leaves at China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue

Jun 14 , 2016
  • Wu Jianmin

    Former President, China Foreign Affairs University

Late China-U.S. Focus contributor Wu Jianmin was an accomplished senior Chinese diplomat whose lustrous career included serving as an interpreter to late Chinese leaders Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, Foreign Ministry spokesman, China's  ambassador to France, the Netherlands and the UN in Geneva, as well as the President of the Foreign Affairs University in Beijing. After retirement, Mr. Wu became a leading voice for the country's continued engagement with the rest of the world and public diplomacy. On June 18, 2016, Mr. Wu died in a car crash in Chinese southern city of Wuhan. He was 77.

The Eighth Round of China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue and the Seventh Round of the China-US High-level Consultation on People-to-People Exchange were held in Beijing on June 6 and 7. The increasing frictions and disputes between the two countries over the South China Sea, and their differences over the issues of bilateral trade and human rights have drawn intense attention from the international community and world media. This was also the last round of dialogue under the auspices of the Obama administration.

I attended the US-China Think-Tank Forum organized by Peking University and Stanford University in the framework of this round of dialogue. Ambassador John Negroponte, former US deputy secretary of State, and I delivered the keynote speeches at the opening. I also exchanged views with American participants.

Now the dialogue is over. It is time for us to reflect on its significance for the future development of our bilateral relationship.

As I see it, the following three points will have a bearing on our relationship in the years to come.

1. Both China and the US recognize the value of the bilateral dialogue.

In 2006, Madame Wu YI, vice-premier of China, and Mr. Hank Paulson, Treasury secretary of the United States, initiated the first China-US strategic economic dialogue. Three years later, it was elevated to strategic and economic dialogue by President Hu Jintao and President George W. Bush. In the past 11 years, much water has passed under the bridge. The US is the only superpower in the world today, while China is the largest developing country. Despite the heavy schedules of the leaders of our two countries, the dialogue has not only been maintained, but pursued with greater energy, for both sides find it increasingly useful.

2. Mechanism matters.

Two years ago in Hawaii, I met with former secretary Paulson. He explained to me why he and Madame Wu Yi launched this dialogue mechanism. He said the US-China relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the 21st century. As two big powers, we have so many things to discuss, and frictions and differences are unavoidable. This being the case, mechanism matters. Since we set up this dialogue mechanism, it has enabled us to see each other regularly at the highest levels and discuss how best we can develop cooperation and deal with differences, while preventing frictions from deteriorating into crises.

At the Think-Tank Forum, Mr. Negroponte told me that President Obama and President Xi Jinping had met each other 30 times on different occasions. He believes that both sides have to institutionalize the summits, formal and informal, with the US new administration after elections. He is right. I observed that in the past few years, between the two summits, frictions and disputes surfaced. When our two leaders met, they took stock of the bilateral relationship and concluded that China-US common interests were much more important than differences, thus securing a sound and steady growth of China-US relationship.

3. A holistic approach is needed with regard to China-US relationship.

I pointed out at the Think-Tank Forum on June 6 that President Xi told Mr. Paulson on April 19 that the China-US relationship, as a whole, was growing well. But the international media focused on the problems and make gloomy forecasts on the outcome of the dialogue, as if the “sky would fall”.

However, when the dialogue was over, the two sides published a fact sheet with 160 agreements. Secretary of State John Kerry said that this round of dialogue was the most productive thus far.
Why then there was such a wide gap between the forecast and the final result? The reason is that some people failed to look at the China-US relationship as a whole. They lost sight of the larger picture and focused only on the problems. This tells us that a holistic approach is very much needed when we look at the China-US relationship.

With regard to China-US relationship, President Xi has called for an approach of focusing on cooperation and managing differences. Secretary Kerry also emphasized the need to focus on cooperation. This is the best approach to managing bilateral relation.

The China-US relationship is crucial for world peace and prosperity. A sound and steady development of this relationship is not only good for the two countries, but also for the rest of the world.

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