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U.S., China Strategic and Economic Dialogue Criticized

U.S.-China dialogue, exploited by Beijing for propaganda, produces no substantive results

Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew prepare for a meeting with business leaders at the 2013 Strategic and Economic Dialogue / AP
• July 16, 2013 5:00 am

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The Obama administration concluded its fifth round of high-level talks with China last week amid much fanfare, but as with past dialogue meetings, the "strategic" talks produced no substantive results.

China has used the so-called Strategic and Economic Dialogue talks with the United States to enhance its international standing, analysts say.

The Obama administration, for its part, has sought to use the talks—unsuccessfully so far—to try to convince the Chinese to join its agenda on issues ranging from joint pollution controls to curbs on workplace cigarette smoking.

A close inspection of the topics discussed, along with comments made by senior administration officials involved in the talks, indicates no breakthroughs were made on issues such as China’s cyber attacks on U.S. businesses or the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea.

Instead, the talks appeared to focus heavily on the issue of climate change, the environment, and other issues that the Chinese in the past have shown no interest in pursuing in any substantive way.

The reference to "strategic" talks during the dialogue is a "euphemism for ‘climate change’ and ‘global just-getting-along,’" said former State Department intelligence official John Tkacik.

"This is comedic, it's a Monty Python sketch in caricatures of diplomacy, it's a ‘Strategic Dialogue’ about the importance of having a dialogue about future consultations to achieve a roadmap, all in due course," Tkacik said.

"There are no meaningful achievements, so the State Department calls them ‘outcomes,’ and all the significant policy movements, without exception, are by the U.S. side in an effort to accommodate the Chinese side."

The 91 points are "conclusive proof that the ‘strategic' side—at least—of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue has been a diplomatic fiasco, a carnival of minutia, or a waste of the taxpayer's hard-earned money, or some unholy combination of the three," Tkacik said.

Former State Department Undersecretary of State for International Security Affairs John Bolton agreed. "I never had anything to do with them, but as a general matter, cabinet members don't see them as very useful substantively," Bolton said.

Randy Schriver, who served as a China affairs policymaker at both the Pentagon and State Department, questioned the utility of the talks

"The S&ED continues to punch below its weight," Schriver said. "While some of our stated aspirations may be worthwhile, such as a bilateral investment treaty, the actual outcomes are different. Chinese leaders use the S&ED as a forum to promote their status as a global power without agreeing to bear any of the real responsibilities and burdens of leadership."

Schriver said the Chinese effectively use the dialogue to obfuscate such issues as predator Chinese cyber attacks. Additionally, the Chinese are experts at exploiting the S&ED process itself "as the deliverable, rather than substantive cooperation on today’s pressing security and economic challenges."

"I hope the Obama administration will consider a significantly restructured version of the S&ED before we load multiple cabinet secretaries onto planes for Beijing next year for round six," he said.

The one new element of the talks this year was the Cyber Working Group. The statement described the first meeting of the group as "candid, in-depth, and constructive" but offered no details.

"The two sides had an in-depth discussion on issues of mutual concern and decided to take practical measures to enhance dialogue on international norms and principles in order to guide action in cyber space and to strengthen CERT (Computer Emergency Response Team) to CERT coordination and cooperation," the statement said.

They also promised to "discuss" additional measures at a future meeting.

The list of 91 "outcomes" uses vague diplomatic terminology in an apparent effort to embellish the talks’ results. Frequently, the 91 "outcomes" are described using phases such as "continue to discuss," or uses references to "the possibility" of creating U.S.-China areas for cooperation.

Another frequent description was "decided to hold" – as opposed to actually holding – discussions on various strategic and economic topics.

Other euphemisms used were "expressed their support," or "decided to actively provide necessary conditions" for cooperative programs.

"The rest of the so-called ‘outcomes' of the ‘strategic' dialogue are uniformly trivialities that either cost the U.S. taxpayer in ‘exchange programs' or should have been addressed by specialists outside the fanfare of super-cabinet level events, or both," Tkacik said.

On the issues such as Chinese arms proliferation to rogue states such as North Korea and human rights violations, few concrete results were listed.

Echoing Chinese government statements, the State Department said of the meetings: "The two sides held in-depth discussions on major bilateral, regional, and global issues and recommitted to the S&ED’s role in deepening strategic trust and expanding practical cooperation to build a new model of relations between the United States and China."

Another focus was military cooperation. The two sides "decided to actively explore" notification for major military activities and "to continue discussions" on rules of behavior regarding military air and maritime activities.

The Chinese military has been aggressively stepping up territorial claims in the South China and East Seas in recent months, making large territorial claims on areas claimed by other states.

Another outcome was a decision to set up "a hotline between the special representatives of the presidents, in order to facilitate communication."

The reference to special representatives is an acknowledgement that the Chinese no longer consider their foreign minister as the top foreign affairs official. Instead, following Chinese communist governance, the State Department described Secretary of State John Kerry as "special representative of President Obama."

That was done to accommodate the top Chinese official at the talks, State Councilor Yang Jiechi, who is no longer China’s foreign minister but instead holds the post of "state councilor" within the communist system, a higher rank than the foreign minister.

A senior administration official said the United States raised specific cases of Chinese human rights violations but would not identify them.

The Chinese continue to imprison Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, a democracy and human rights activist who was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2009 on trumped up charges of "inciting subversion of state power."

State’s outcome on human rights: "Affirmed their commitment to continuing constructive bilateral dialogue on human rights."

On weapons proliferation, the United States and China "affirmed their intention to enhance communication and cooperation on nonproliferation, arms control, and other major international security issues on the basis of mutual respect, equality, and mutual benefit."

The statement also said the two sides "noted" improvements in cooperation on arms proliferation the past year.

That appears at odds with a recent United Nations report that confirmed that China sold North Korea six mobile chassis that are now used for a new KN-08 long-range ballistic missile that the Pentagon says poses a direct threat of nuclear attack on the United States.

In part, as a result of the missile launcher transfers, which China claimed to the United Nations were sold as lumber trucks, the Pentagon in March canceled plans for long-range anti-missile interceptors in Europe and will add 14 additional long-range interceptors to bases in Alaska and California.

On North Korea, the two sides agreed to "continue high-level discussions" on peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, and on Iran, they agreed to seek a "solution" to Iran’s illicit production of uranium.

On Syria, both countries "reiterated" the goal of solving the crisis "through political means," a position contradicted by the administration’s recent announcement that it planned to arm Syria rebels.

For the Asia-Pacific, where the administration is engaged in a post-Afghanistan "pivot," the statement said the two sides agreed to "work together to maintain peace, stability, and prosperity of the region."

However, most of the outcomes focused on environmental or climate change discussions, a key issue for Kerry.

The talks discussed joint fisheries enforcement and plans for a China Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum on Capitol Hill.

On climate change, the United States and China "decided to enhance actions to combat climate change through new pragmatic cooperation on heavy-duty and other vehicles; smart grids; carbon capture, utilization, and storage; collecting and managing greenhouse gas data; and energy efficiency in buildings and industry," the statement said.

Another program calls for developing "eco-partnerships" on energy and environmental issues for exchanging ideas on "successful green cooperation projects" that were not further specified.

An "Eco-City Project" in six cities also was announced aimed at "sustainable urban development."

And then there will be the "Solar Decathlon China" to be held in August in Datong, China, that "serves as an opportunity to highlight advanced technologies and techniques that can be applied and scaled up in China."

Another program on intelligence transportation will seek reduced-emissions vehicles. There is also "aviation conservation and emission reduction," an anti-air pollution program.

Highlighting China’s massive air pollution problem, the talks sought to speed up improvements in air quality programs through cooperation between the Environmental Protection Agency and China’s Ministry of Environment Protection.

China also "decided" to cooperate on a water quality improvement programs. China’s lakes and rivers are among the most polluted waters on the planet.

"The two sides decided to continue to promote exchanges in groundwater technology and services related to monitoring, remediation, standards development, and the nexus between water and energy, such as with shale gas," the statement said.

The United States also is pushing China to develop environmental law and will hold a fourth "Environmental Legislation seminar" later this year.

China, which is also a major market for trafficking in endangered wildlife, also agreed with the United States to "combat the global illegal trade in wildlife."

China also will send officials to the United States to "exchange views" on "curbing greenhouse gas emissions from heavy duty vehicles."

The latest talks also "successfully kicked off" an initiative called the "U.S.-China Smoke-Free Worksites initiative" that promotes smoke-free workplace environments.

"Both countries are working to continue to promote, expand, and advance the interests of this effort within the private and public sectors," the statement said.

Numerous other forums were announced on energy, environment, and climate-related meetings.

Published under: China, Obama Administration