Thorny US-Sino issues back on table

Senior dialogue won’t yield solutions but it gives both sides a chance to air views.

TOP American and Chinese officials are back at the table for another round of talks on contentious issues bedevilling bilateral relations.

Political and security issues figured prominently in the two-day meeting which began yesterday, unlike the just-concluded Strategic Economic Dialogue (SED) between Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Chinese Vice-Premier Wu Yi.

This “senior dialogue” – just one notch below the SED in terms of seniority of representation – features US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and China’s Vice-Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo.

It will likely focus on contentious bilateral problems such as Taiwan, as well as a range of global issues, including North Korea, Iran, energy and the conflict in Dafur, Sudan.

Indeed, the talks could signal the depth of Sino-American disagreements across the political spectrum.

“Let’s face it, this dialogue is not going to resolve all the problems overnight,” said Mr Michael McDevitt, a retired navy rear admiral who was a senior Pentagon official and is now a China watcher.

“But what it does is to give both sides a chance to air their views, and get some cooperation even if it is only incremental.”

It was this need for regular high-level contact that led US President George W. Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao to agree in 2004 at the Apec Summit to hold talks among their senior officials as part of efforts to improve ties.

This fourth round of talks takes place against a backdrop of rising congressional hostility towards China.

US lawmakers are stoking trade tensions with Beijing, pressing for measures to force the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve to intervene in what they consider to be skewed currency markets – a move implicitly targeting China.

A Chinese official here revealed that Beijing was “keeping a watchful eye” on proceedings on Capitol Hill amid concern that populist rhetoric against China would mount in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election.

Well-placed sources told The Straits Times that, while in Washington, Mr Dai would be taking part in a panel discussion with five contenders for the White House, including Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and Republican John McCain.

He would use this opportunity to register Beijing’s concerns – and assess their views on China.

Taiwan continues to cast a dark shadow over the relationship even if the problem appears to be submerged for now.

The Chinese are looking towards the Bush administration to rein in Taiwanese leader Chen Shui-bian who they fear could cause “mischief” during the Olympics in Beijing next year.

For the Americans, the concern is that “there will always be a potential for conflict over Taiwan because China keeps a finger on the trigger”, noted a retired US ambassador to China who declined to be named.

Mr Negroponte will raise concerns over Beijing’s rapid military build-up. US concern about an emerging military rival has seen Washington announce plans to tighten export controls, targeting high-tech civilian goods that could benefit the People’s Liberation Army.

Internationally, Iran and Darfur will figure in the discourse. North Korea will most likely dominate discussions but it presents less of a dilemma for Washington now that six-party talks are back on track and Beijing is playing the role of diplomatic go-between.

Observers say that the “senior dialogue” will ultimately give both sides a chance to “vent their frustrations” over a host of issues.

For the Chinese leadership especially, the dialogue offers the chance to have a regular channel of communication to keep up the momentum in ties even if nothing substantive can be achieved over the remaining 18 months of the Bush
administration.

“The Chinese are realists,” explained Princeton University Professor Aaron Friedberg, a former top national security official to Vice-President Dick Cheney.

“They can read the calendar and the clock and know that the current US administration won’t be around for too long. They will be waiting for the next group to come in.”

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