The New Dialogue

It’s official. US and China announced establishment of the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (no idea what the official acronym is yet, but I’ll use S&ED), successor to the Strategic Economic Dialogue (SED) of the Bush Administration. Full text of White House announcement is here: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Statement-On-Bilateral-Meeting-With-President-Hu-Of-China/

Some quick reactions:

1) Most important thing is that Administration and Chinese have moved quickly to get this effort off the ground (note: this is one of the points made by US-China Business Council President John Frisbie in his announcement welcoming the new dialogue. Text here: http://www.uschina.org/public/documents/2009/04/us-china-dialogue.html ). As I noted in a previous post (Counterparts), I think some observers fuss over the details of the structure, rank of the counterparts, etc. To me, once you get up to the Vice Premier/State Councilor level (as the new forum does (continuing past practice)) you are fine. Implementation is really the most important thing (see below).

2) I appreciated that the official announcement singled out the Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade (JCCT) for special mention. As I noted in a previous post (An Ode to the JCCT), I don’t think contentious trade issues (nor human rights) should form the centerpiece of the bilateral relationship (the huge global issues are just too important now), but the JCCT remains very important for its substantive and political role. I hope the JCCT remains focused on addressing specific trade and investment issues. Discussion of cooperative projects is important, but resolution of real world issues should remain the core of the JCCT. It is virtually unique in that regard among the many bilateral fora.

3) Also pleased the announcement emphasized the importance of strengthened military to military relations. This too has a unique importance among the bilateral interactions. That topic is the subject of a short piece of mine (written a week ago) which will shortly be posted on the redone National Strategy Forum Review website (I’ll provide link when it is up).

4) I’m a bit unclear about how the energy and environment piece fits in here. It is referenced in the statement and I am assuming it is a part of the “strategic track” of the dialogue, chaired by Secretary Clinton. I understand the Chinese side had previously indicated that (former Chinese EPA Administration) National Development and Reform Commission Vice Chairman Xie Zhenhua would lead China’s side of discussions on these issues. Seems to me that is fine for the detailed, substantive discussions, but there needs to be (and I assume there is) an understanding that these key topics fall under the overall umbrella structure (so they are linked directly into the senior most discussions).

5) No specific mention of food and product safety, but I assume these fall under the reference to continued cooperation in (a long list of areas, including:) health. Anyway, both sides are highly motivated to address food and product safety so not sure that a huge amount of the senior most attention is needed for that.

But the real key in such a process is implementation. It is implementation, rather than the words on the page, that will determine how much value comes out of the new structure. And there are three key elements of implementation:

Thoughtfulness/preparation: It is easy for these dialogues to degenerate into rote recitation of talking points. The formal plenary sessions will never depart too far from that, but the margin of difference can matter. Also, in smaller groups and on the margins it is possible to engage in more give and take. However, all of this requires lots of staff work in preparation. Clear agendas with topics that have been thoroughly discussed at lower levels, with outcomes (if any) pretty near final are important. Goal is not a free wheeling negotiation at the table between senior US and Chinese officials, but rather a deeper discussion (at the table and on the margins) of the key issues which lower level officials have teed up.

Intensity/focus: This was one of the great strengths that Hank Paulson brought to the table. His personal intense work style and focus on China permeated the SED process and ensured continuous engagement on the issues. I’m not convinced that the folks working the new S&ED will need to continue with Sunday morning planning meetings and phone calls from the Secretary at all hours of the day or night, but it is important that the principals devote a significant amount of time and attention to driving the process, including frequent conversations with their counterparts between formal sessions (see my post on Communications).

Staffing: I think the architecture for US-China relations in the Administration has been driven mainly by Jeff Bader (Senior Asia Director at the NSC) and Jim Steinberg (Deputy Secretary of State). From my perspective there are no better people to be taking this on. They have the vision and practical smarts needed now to further advance US-China relations. However, as the new dialogue process gets up and going it will be important to have a (small) group of core staff who focus full time on the S&ED (or, actually two groups, I guess, one at State and one at Treasury). Each of these groups should be wired in high enough at each department so they are above the various bureaus, each of which may have a different set of views and priorities. (Note: I know State a lot better than I know Treasury. At State there is the danger that the many bureaus who will want to have a piece of the action, will get into endless squabbles and turf battles. For this reason I think it is especially important for there to be a core group (maybe attached to Steinberg’s office or the Secretary’s)). And these groups will need to continue to have close coordination with the NSC. And of course a similar counterpart arrangement on the Chinese side.

So, bottom line: It is great that the new process has been launched. As the cliché goes, now the hard work begins.

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Explore posts in the same categories: China, Environment, Investment, Security, Trade

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