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Foreign Policy

Stabilizing and Strengthening Sino-American Relations

May 08 , 2011

The Third Round of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) was held in Washington, D.C. on May 9-10, 2011. The main result of the meetings is that the world’s most important bilateral relationship is now more stable and stronger, although still fragile and in need of further strengthening in several areas.  The S&ED continues the trend begun by President Hu Jintao’s January 2011 state visit to Washington, which served to arrest the year-long downward slide in relations. As a result of these two sets of high-level U.S.-China interactions, the deterioration has been halted, a new atmosphere of partnership started, and mutual understanding improved. While 2010 was the worst year for U.S.-China relations in many years, 2011 is shaping up to be much better.

The outcome of the S&ED can be measured on three principal levels.

The first implication is the depth of institutionalization of the U.S.-China relationship. This is seen in the unprecedentedly high-level and deep nature of the two government’s delegations. More than a dozen cabinet level officials and agency heads on each side participated—representing well more than half of each government’s institutions. Neither nation has anywhere near such an extensive bureaucratic set of exchanges with another nation. For the first time, this time both delegations included senior military officers—who inaugurated the Strategic Security Dialogue (SSD) under the strategic track of the S&ED. In this context, the two sides discussed the sensitive issues of cyber security and maritime security. At the very top, the two delegations were again led by the U.S. Secretaries of State and Treasury and State Councilor Dai Bingguo and Executive Vice Premier Wang Qishan. In addition, a large number of other minister/cabinet level officials participated.  The character of the two delegations represents the deep institutionalization that the Sino-American relationship has now achieved, and this is a strong stabilizing force.

The second implication of the S&ED is breadth of the exchanges. The S&ED produced a remarkable 48 point list of “outcomes.” Unlike last year’s document or those produced at the past two presidential summits, this one was not so much aspirational as substantive. The document is a remarkable testimony to the extremely diverse nature of the U.S-China relationship today, and it reveals the fact that there is hardly any issue in international affairs and the world today that is not on the U.S.-China agenda. The two sides had separate discussions on virtually every major region of the world; on several key “hot spot” issues like Iran and North Korea. They addressed pressing global challenges like climate change, terrorism, disaster relief, ocean and atmospheric issues, nuclear nonproliferation, weapons transfers and demining, and energy security. They addressed a range of bilateral issues human rights: clean energy, agriculture, science and technology exchanges, people-to-people exchanges, law enforcement, anti-corruption work, customs and coast guard cooperation, marine and fishery science cooperation, and announced a new governor-level forum. Several new inter-governmental protocols were prepared for future signing in the area of health sciences, supply chain security and trade facilitation, law enforcement, and ecology.

These were the outcomes on the so-called “strategic track.” The “economic track” did not put out a similar document—but judging from the press briefings given by both sides, the economic discussions were equally wide-ranging and thorough-going. Both Vice Premier Wang Qishan and Secretary of Treasury Geithner noted how the subject of broad macro economic management and rebalancing of each nation’s economy was discussed in depth. Additionally issues, such as Chinese currency appreciation, U.S. export controls, and foreign direct investment were high on the agenda.

The third implication of the S&ED is the potential to sustain cooperation in the months ahead. As noted above, the relationship has sailed through very rough waters over the past year—and, before the S&ED, could be described as being in a state of “fragile stability.” The S&ED definitely served to strengthen the stability, and thereby overcome some of the fragility in the relationship. While this is encouraging, analysts all note that there still exists substantial mistrust on both sides and a number of nettlesome issues over which the two governments find themselves far apart. Yet, to bridge these differences requires intensive and candid dialogue—which is what this year’s S&ED did achieve.

David Shambaugh is Professor and Director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University, and a nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. 

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