POLITICS: US-China Confab Short on Concrete Commitments

  • by Eli Clifton (washington)
  • Inter Press Service

The U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which concluded Tuesday in Washington, addressed a wide range of issues with an emphasis on the growing trade imbalance and stabilising the global financial systems.

While the talks produced little in substantive agreements, it permitted co-chairs Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner and their Chinese counterparts, State Councillor Dai Bingguo and Vice Premier Wang Qishan, to highlight both the international significance of China's economy - the world's third largest - and the importance of bilateral U.S.-Chinese negotiations in the strategic as well as economic arena.

The MOU on climate change - the only concrete agreement to come out of the talks - reiterated China and the U.S.'s joint commitment to fighting climate change. However, the lack of any firm targets on reducing carbon emissions or specific climate policy commitments from the world's two largest greenhouse gas emitters raises doubts that the United Nations Climate Change Conference, to be held in Copenhagen in December, will find success in forming an effective post-Kyoto accord on greenhouse gas reductions.

''It's still too early to expect any big breakthroughs in terms of Copenhagen,'' Nina Hachigian, senior fellow at the Centre for American Progress, told IPS. "If we're going to see a breakthrough it will come from one of the two upcoming meetings between [Chinese Premier] Hu Jintao and [U.S. President Barack] Obama.''

''Aspirational statements cannot stand in for legal commitments on the international stage,'' said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry in a speech Wednesday.

''That's why I went to China this spring - to communicate that America understands that we do have an obligation to lead, and we will. But China needs to understand that we will not enter into a global treaty without a meaningful commitment from China to be part of the solution," Kerry said.

Although the talks have been widely characterised as a "getting to know you" gathering between Chinese and U.S. officials, the leading role played by the State Department has given some analysts reason to believe a shift has occurred in U.S.-China relations.

Under the George W. Bush administration, the Treasury Department was the primary negotiator with China, but the introduction of the State Department to the dialogue under the Obama administration signals a new emphasis on broad strategic issues facing the two nations.

''There is a slight shift in frame under the Obama administration,'' said Hachigian. ''You see a framing of the issues that characterises it as two big powers who together are going to tackle global issues. And that is a shift from how the Bush administration approached it.''

Indeed the talks touched on a broad range of strategic issues, including North Korea, nuclear proliferation, medical pandemics, economic recovery, clean energy, counterterrorism and humanitarian crises.

Already China has shown a greater willingness to participate in bilateral and multilateral strategic concerns as evidenced by its participation in anti-piracy operations off the Somali coast, and it is hosting a conference on pandemic response later this year.

While lacking in substantive agreements, the two days of talks attempted to assuage the concerns of Chinese investors - China is the biggest holder of U.S. public debt - and U.S. concern over the growing trade imbalance.

Chinese investment in U.S. Treasury bills and mortgage-related securities has been hit hard by the financial crisis and sub-prime mortgage collapse, leading to a slowdown in Chinese growth.

The backdrop of the shared economic and strategic challenges facing both the U.S. and China was alluded to in a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Clinton and Geithner in which they called for ongoing cooperation between the two countries.

''The Chinese have a wise aphorism: ''When you are in a common boat, you need to cross the river peacefully together.'' Today we will join our Chinese counterparts in grabbing an oar and starting to row."

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service