US-China talks a chance to reset ties: Observers

Strategic and economic dialogue will be watched closely for signs of progress on difficult issues

ALL eyes will be on a meeting between US and Chinese leaders in Washington today, as observers watch for any sign that both sides can move beyond the difficult issues plaguing the relationship.

This year's US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) comes at a critical juncture - sandwiched as it is between a recent angry exchange over Beijing's land reclamation in the South China Sea and a state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to the US capital, expected in September.

Adding further tension to this, the seventh in the S&ED series, are the fresh accusations from US officials that hackers based in China are behind a massive data breach that compromised personal information of around four million current and former US federal employees.

Indeed, America's top diplomat to Asia, Mr Daniel Russel, had warned earlier that Washington will not "paper over" its differences with China at the meeting.

Yet, Washington pundits see the meetings as more of an opportunity to reset ties rather than for officials to deepen rows and expect both sides to take a more conciliatory tone.

Mr Chris Johnson, the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said that while it is worrying that maritime and cyber security issues are "poisoning the atmosphere" of the talks, both sides will probably want to send a "strong signal that the relationship is stable and moving in the right direction".

"I think the main way to think about the S&ED process this year is as a table setter for the upcoming summit (between President Xi and President Barack Obama) and whether the two sides do a good job of pressing the reset button and trying to calm nerves on the status of the relationship."

While previous iterations have produced concrete agreements, he expects few if any deliverables from this week's meeting, noting that the main achievements will be saved for President Xi's visit.

"So I think expectations should be kept low for what we are going to see coming out of this, but it does not mean it's not a good thing to have those senior level leaders exchanging views and interchanging especially before our two presidents sit down," said Mr Johnson.

While it is inevitable that maritime and cyber security issues will surface over the next few days, observers expect US and Chinese leaders to focus on areas where agreement is possible.

Mr Daniel Wright, non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said this could include, for instance, making progress on climate change and the bilateral investment treaty.

"Rapidly changing domestic and global realities call for Washington and Beijing to re-articulate and pursue the significant overlap in the Venn diagram of the US-China relationship... Best for Washington and Beijing to make progress this month on issues such as the bilateral investment treaty, new protocol around cyber and technology, cooperation on climate and the environment, support for sub-national and people- to-people exchanges, and joint support on global economic development.

"Action on these items could provide sustaining momentum that is aligned with enlightened self-interest and that would be applauded by the people of both countries."

The meetings will be led by Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew from the United States and State Councillor Yang Jiechi and Vice- Premier Wang Yang from China.

The Strategic and Economic Dialogue was set up in 2006 to provide a regular mechanism for leaders from both countries to cooperate on issues.

jeremyau@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2015, with the headline 'US-China talks a chance to reset ties: Observers'. Print Edition | Subscribe