Welcome development in U.S.-China dialogue

by Frank Ching

HONG KONG — All indications are that the first summit meeting between the new American president, Barack Obama, and his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, went extremely well. The American leader has already accepted an invitation to visit Beijing later this year.

Beijing made sure the summit would go well by not pushing the confrontation between the two countries in the South China Sea last month.

The incident was mentioned by Obama in the meeting with Hu but both sides decided not to dwell on it. Instead, they have agreed on a new, high-level dialogue mechanism, called the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (SAED). Under this arrangement, there will be Cabinet-level dialogues involving both political and economic issues every year.

In addition, military-to-military exchanges as well as a human rights dialogue are also being resumed. Admiral Gary Roughead, U.S Chief of Naval Operations, will visit China later this month to attend events marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese navy.

As is customary, the two countries also agreed on a description of their relationship. They agreed to work together to build a “positive, cooperative and comprehensive” relationship for the 21st century.

Under former U.S. President George W. Bush, the two countries agreed to build a relationship that was “constructive and cooperative.” However, the United States regularly added the word “candid” to the description, underlining its willingness to criticize China’s human rights record. Obama, however, is unlikely to use the word “candid,” even if he does occasionally make negative comments.

While in the past the U.S. asked China to act as a “responsible stakeholder,” now Washington is demonstrating to Beijing that it, too, can behave responsibly. Obama told Hu that once the American economy had recovered, he would act to cut the fiscal deficit in half and bring the deficit down to a level that is sustainable.

The SAED itself is a combination of two Bush-era dialogues — the Senior Dialogue on political issues and the Strategic Economic Dialogue on economic issues.

While the SAED was headed by then Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, the political dialogue was led not by the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice but by her deputy. Now, both the political and economic facets of the dialogue will be at Cabinet level, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner dealing with their Chinese counterparts, State Councilor Dai Bingguo and Deputy Premier Wang Qishan.

This new dialogue will be held annually rather than every six months, with the first one scheduled for this summer in the U.S.

China no doubt finds the Obama approach refreshing. While Chinese officials personally liked Bush, Obama is different in that he has adopted a tone of humility in his foreign policy, insisting that the U.S. should listen rather than dictate.

He is also more willing to treat China as an equal. The hope on both sides is that they will build a long-lasting strategic relationship that will enable them to cooperate in dealing with global problems, from the financial crisis to climate change.

The U.S. needs China’s cooperation on a host of issues, including knotty problems such as the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran as well as the humanitarian situation in Darfur and the war in Afghanistan that is spilling over into Pakistan.

China, on the other hand, wants the respectability that a close association with the U.S. and the countries of the West brings. This may well cause it to distance itself somewhat from such international pariahs as Sudan and Zimbabwe and, hopefully, result in better treatment for its own people, including ethnic minorities such as Tibetans and Uighurs.

But problems will inevitably crop up. One example is the continued operation of American surveillance vessels in the South China Sea, which meet with Beijing’s implacable opposition and, at some point, may well result in another confrontation. Arms sales to Taiwan will also continue to be a point of friction.

Talk of a G-2, involving only the U.S. and China, is not only premature but also unwise. Such an arrangement will not go down well with the rest of the world, especially with America’s allies in Asia and elsewhere.

There is no need to put in place a Sino-American condominium. But it is vitally important for the two countries to talk to each other, to understand each other and, if possible, to have a common approach to major international issues.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator. E-mail: Frank.ching@gmail.com