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Foreign Policy

The S&ED — an Invaluable Diplomatic Asset

Jun 21 , 2016
  • Wu Zhenglong

    Senior Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

The just-concluded Eighth China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) produced fruitful results. This round of S&ED, the last for the Obama administration, could play the role of building on the achievements of the past and ushering in the new. As far as the development of China-US relations in the past eight years is concerned, the role of the S&ED should not, and could not, be underestimated, serving as an important mechanism in building a new model of major-country relationship that is characterized by non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.

In early 2009, shortly after the new administration of President Barack Obama was formed, he proposed to merge the separately held high-level strategic and economic dialogues into one. At the G20 Summit in London in April 2009, the heads of state of China and the US jointly decided to establish the China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue mechanism, which would be held annually, with the two taking turns to host the event.

The S&ED is the highest-level bilateral dialogue and cooperation mechanism, which involves the participation of the biggest number of departments and covers the widest range of topics. The mechanism helps provide a practical and feasible approach for the biggest developed country and the largest developing country to avoid the “Thucydides Trap.” The dialogue mechanism not only has no precedent in China-US relations, it is even rarity in the relations between the US and its allies.

The China-US relationship witnessed ups and downs, even tensions at times in the past years, but it generally maintained the trend of steady development, without any roller-coaster ride or major crises. More importantly, China and the US cooperated well in some milestone events, such as bilateral economic and trade cooperation, the Paris Climate Agreement and the Iranian nuclear deal. The S&ED mechanism played an irreplaceable role in all these achievements.

First, the mechanism helped build trust and clear up doubts. As the biggest developed country and the largest developing country and the two biggest economies in the world, it is inevitable that the US and China have some differences and frictions. As long as the two sides could have close face-to-face communications and frank exchanges of views, they would be able to increase mutual understanding and reduce misunderstanding and misjudgment. Close communication, however, has not meant to simply air their diverging views, but to discuss in detail why they have the differences and how they could appropriately address such differences.

Second, the mechanism helped better manage differences and defuse potential conflicts. The two sides resorted to a non-confrontational approach to dissolve and manage frictions in a rational and objective manner, so that they would not disrupt the overall picture of their relations and would not go out of control. As Daniel Russel, US assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, put it, “the indicator of health… in the character of the US-China relationship… is the fact that there is so little spillover.”

Third, the mechanism helped expand the scope of cooperation. The shared interests between China and the US far outpace their differences. Through increased cooperation, both China and the US can reap more benefits from the steady development of bilateral relations, and further consolidate the foundations for their mutually beneficial cooperation.

Fourth, the mechanism helped propose forward-looking policy recommendations for the development of the bilateral relationship. On global development trends, the strategies and policies of the two countries, and deep-rooted factors that pose as obstacles to the building of the new model of major-country relationship, the dialogue mechanism could help reach consensuses through frank and strategic communications, which were then submitted to the heads of state for reference in making the final decisions.

Along with the progress of the dialogue, innovations were also made to the S&ED mechanism. On the basis of the S&ED mechanism, more than 90 dialogues and consultation mechanisms have emerged, including the China-US High-Level Consultation on People-to-People Exchange, the strategic security dialogue, the Asia-Pacific consultation and departmental consultations in other fields. Furthermore, dialogues have also become more flexible and diverse, such as informal consultations and small-scale talks, which helped enrich and supplement the annual strategic and economic dialogue.

The S&ED, after three administrations of both the Democratic and Republican parties, has been the fruit of continuing improvement and innovation, and has become a valuable diplomatic “asset” for China and the US in pursuing the new model of major-country relationship, and should be cherished by both sides. After the presidential elections this year, a new US government will be formed. It is critically important to guarantee a smooth development of China-US relations during the change of government and to prevent the occurrence of any disturbances. For the new US government, it will be important to ensure “a seamless transition” by inheriting the “asset” and working together with China to cherish and promote the S&ED mechanism.

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