Counterparts

China policy folks inside the Beltway continue (appropriately) to be focused on how the Obama Administration’s new dialogue – the follow on to the Treasury-led Strategic Economic Dialogue (SED) and State Department-led Senior Dialogue – will be organized. It seems clear we are headed for a structure in which Hillary Clinton and Tim Geithner co-chair the umbrella mechanism on the US side, with sub-groups devoted to key topics (climate change, security issues, economics) operating at the next level down.

Some in town here have been especially focused on the issue of who will chair on the Chinese side. Some believe progress is possible only if the Premier himself is directly engaged in the dialogue, arguing that a single Vice Premier (e.g., Wang Qishan, chair for the SED) or State Councillor (e.g., Dai Bingguo, chair for the Senior Dialogue) does not have clout across a broad enough swath of Chinese ministries to solve the toughest issues.

I think the focus on the rank of the counterparts for the dialogue is overblown. Most important, such a focus understates the difficulty of making progress on key issues with China, regardless of who chairs on the Chinese side. This in turn creates unrealistic expectations and inevitable disappointment and backlash in US political circles.

I recently had occasion to air my views on this issue with the estimable Chris Nelson, author of the redoubtable Nelson Report. Chris was kind enough to include my comments in a recent issue. I’d love to link to the Nelson Report, but it is a by-subscription product only (note: and worth every penny; one of the must-reads every day for Asia policy insiders in DC). However, I offer below the text of my e-mail to Chris in the hope that any readers of this blog will find the views useful (or worthy of arguing with):

“Chris: It is important for China policy community to avoid obsessing too much over the rank of counterparts for bilateral discussions. Of course, rank has to be appropriate and there is certainly a difference when talking with a Vice Premier vs. a Director General. However, most important things to keep in mind are:

1) Chinese leadership operates by consensus; talking to the “top guy” does not mean that person can or will solve an issue; he/she has to consult with peers and reach a consensus anyway. Which brings us to the second point:

2) no matter who we talk to in China we will not see dramatic, short- term breakthroughs on the big complex issues on our agenda (e.g., climate change policy, IPR, subsidies to state owned enterprises, exchange rate, etc.). The analogy I like to use is the immigration problem in the US. The President of Mexico took this issue up directly with President Bush, who knew the issue well, was sympathetic, and tried hard to resolve it. But we did not get immigration reform because it was politically difficult to achieve. Same is true on the major issues we take up with Chinese leaders.

Issue is not that the Premier does not understand the problem; problem is that internal political situation in China (though different) is no less complex than US. In certain regards it is more complex.

Bottom line is that of course we want to get appropriate counterparts for SED and other fora and we should work to get as senior a counterpart as possible. However, we need to be realistic and recognize that meeting with the Premier, etc. is not a magic bullet to resolving issues. We need steady, persistent and long term efforts on
all the key issues, at all levels in China.”

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