U.S.-China talks to soothe but not solve troubles

By Chris Buckley

BEIJING (BestGrowthStock) – High-level talks between China and the United States next week will not bring big breakthroughs, but may help prevent destabilizing breakdowns as the two powers grapple with North Korea and other contentious global troubles.

At their Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) next Monday and Tuesday, Washington and Beijing will trade views on political and economic strains that earlier this year tripped up ties between the world’s biggest and third biggest economies.

Almost 200 Obama administration officials are flying to Beijing for the talks, led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and there will be plenty of U.S. demands jostling for China’s attention, including complaints about China’s trade policies and yuan exchange rate.

But the results are likely to look more like a sketchy map for avoiding trouble, not a blueprint for solving specific problems, said Shen Dingli, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai who specializes in China-U.S. ties.

“Basically, this is a trouble-prevention system. It’s about damage prevention, not about damage resolution. China won’t change its positions on the yuan or North Korea or anything else because of what is said there,” Shen said.

“The Strategic and Economic Dialogue is a stabilizing mechanism,” he added. “Each side wants to use it to shape the other’s behavior, but unless a proposal is mutually beneficial, then we can’t expect it to get very far.”

Iran and North Korea are likely to dominate the “strategic” half of the talks between Clinton and her Chinese counterparts, led by Dai Bingguo, a State Councillor who advises leaders and, inside the government, outranks the Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.

Washington has long urged Beijing to do more to press these countries to curb their nuclear ambitions. South Korea’s official finding that a North Korean torpedo sank its warship, the Cheonan, in late March killing 46 sailors will add to U.S. demands on China, the North’s sole major backer.

Earlier this month, China hosted the North’s leader, Kim Jong-il, on a visit that irritated Seoul.

“North Korea is the issue that stands out as the most contentious diplomatic issue,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international security at Renmin University in Beijing.

“But however much they talk about it in private, China will keep public statements on North Korea to a minimum. There’s only trouble for China in becoming tangled up with the Cheonan.”

The meeting is ultimately about managing the broader strains accompanying China’s growing economic and political weight, which has risen swiftly in the wake of the global financial crisis.

“They definitely recognize that despite their new-found prominence, they have a lot that they need to do with us,” said Charles Freeman, an expert on China at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank in Washington D.C.

“As a general rule, the Chinese don’t look at these exercises as negotiating opportunities or problem-solving opportunities,” he said. “They look at it as more a conceptual affair, an opportunity to talk about the big picture.”

NOT ENTIRELY ALIGNED, NEVER ENTIRELY AT ODDS

That the S&ED is happening at all underscores China’s position that while it may be often irked by U.S. actions, it wants to avoid wide confrontation, said several analysts.

Earlier in the year, Washington’s complaints about Chinese Internet censorship, U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan and President Barack Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama drew angry counterblasts from Beijing, including threats of sanctions against U.S. companies involved in the arms sales.

Beijing has long rejected any challenging of its claims on Tibet and Taiwan. But this time the government’s rancor reflected a widespread belief among the public and some officials that the United States owed China more respect that would reflect its growing economic and political stature.

From March, however, both sides moved to cool tensions, which threatened to spill over into their vital economic flows after U.S. complaints about the yuan joined the brew of disputes.

With prospects for global economic recovery leaning heavily on the United States and China, neither wants alarming fireworks.

Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao will attend several global summits later this year, including a G20 meeting in late June, and Hu plans to make a state visit to the United States, a major diplomatic trophy for a Chinese leader.

Most recently, China backed a draft United Nations Security Council resolution to tighten sanctions on Iran, a step welcomed by Washington after months of negotiations in which Beijing stressed its misgivings about sanctions.

Despite nationalist pressures at home, China’s leaders do not share the belief that the United States has lost or will soon lose global dominance, said Wang Jisi, an influential Chinese expert on the United States, in a recent lecture in Beijing.

“The agenda in China-U.S. relations is much more complex than before,” said Wang, dean of the Peking University School of International Studies.

“But if you count all the issues, there is not one on which the two countries’ interests are completely aligned, and there is not one on which their interests are completely at odds.”

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(Additional reporting by Paul Eckert in Washington; Editing by Nick Macfie)

U.S.-China talks to soothe but not solve troubles