Security issues expected to dominate US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue

WASHINGTON - Security issues like the South China Sea disputes and the lifting of US arms embargo on Vietnam are expected to take precedence over economic ones at a US-China dialogue starting in Beijing on Monday (June 6), with analysts expecting raised tensions between the two countries.

The annual US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue ( S&ED), co-chaired by Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, as well as State Councillor Yang Jiechi and Vice-Premier Wang Yang, comes at the intersection of a series of events that shine a spotlight on differences between the two sides. 

In the lead up to the S&ED, Taiwan's new president Tsai Ing-wen was sworn in, US President Barack Obama lifted a long-standing arms embargo on Vietnam and officials from both sides sparred on the South China Sea disputes at a security forum - the Shangri-la Dialogue - in Singapore.

The S&ED meeting will be followed soon by a ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on a case against China's claims to the South China Sea brought by the Philippines, a long-time US ally.

All that, plus the fact that the S&ED does not typically produce any breakthrough, added up to a dialogue that will end with relatively little to shout about.

"Same old, same old" is how Mr Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, described his expectations for the dialogue.

"I think you'll see a lot of the same issues get discussed, with both sides making the same pro-forma statements and staking out the same positions," he said.

At a strategic security meeting on Sunday held under the framework of the S&ED and attended by US and Chinese military and foreign affairs officials, both sides reiterated their commitment to continue dialogue and work towards a stable and cooperative strategic security relationship.

Ms Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said although there may be efforts made to tee up agreements for US President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping to unveil when they meet later this year on the sidelines of the Group of 20 nations summit, those will be hard to come by.

"Can more be done on climate change? Will China provide a new negative list that could make a Bilateral Investment Treaty possible?

"I believe that the achievements of the Obama administration in US-China relations are largely completed; it will be challenging to produce additional agreements," she told The Straits Times.

But even if the two countries continue to circle each other on the same issues, analysts stressed that the dialogue will still be a valuable mechanism.

For one thing, it will allow both sides to highlight those areas where they do have common ground and ensure that engagement will continue into the next US presidency.

"The Chinese are worried about the US-China relationship and want it to remain on sound footing. The atmospherics of the S&ED will emphasize the positive: shared interests and cooperation, while managing differences," said Ms Glaser.

In fact, Mr Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, argued  that the unglamorous, routine aspects of the S&ED process are probably its most valuable.

"The S&ED mechanism requires Chinese and American bureaucracies to deal with each other in scheduled, complex, integrated ways. This is an essential spur to cooperation," he said.

"The cooperative dimension of the relationship must be spotlighted and buttressed whenever possible. But the annual S&ED focus on cooperation has come to feel like a routinised effort to assuage fears, while the competitive side of the relationship, which is dynamic and dangerous, gets the attention in Beijing and Washington.

"The S&ED is about incremental progress - the bureaucratic slog- not about breakthroughs."

jeremyau@sph.com.sg