December marked the latest meeting of the US-China Strategic Economic Dialogue, a series of twice-yearly high-level economic meetings initiated by President George W. Bush in 2006.
In his closing remarks to what could be the last such official dialogue between the two countries, US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson spoke of productive discussions as well as relationships of trust and confidence. But there was little in the way of concrete results.
The dialogue’s legacy appears to be one of modest gains – framework agreements, action plans, discussions about future discussions. At times it seemed less a high-level economic meeting than a setting for US and Chinese companies to announce new deals.
But it would be wrong to judge the dialogue in these terms. It was never going to result in sweeping treaties or trade agreements. The real worth of the dialogue is that it allowed both sides to familiarize themselves with the other’s power structure, decision-making processes and esoteric political concerns.
In that it has allowed each side to see how the other half works, a better measure of its impact may be not in concrete results, but rather in conflicts avoided.
The Obama administration should continue the dialogue in some form, and resist the temptation to use the meetings as a forum to score political points at home. Obama will need China’s help on vital issues ranging from North Korea to climate change. A partnership with China on these issues, flawed as it may be, is more important than placating rising protectionist sentiment in Congress.
Economic negotiations have long stumbled over the lightning rod that helped launch the dialogue: China’s controls on its currency. Some have suggested that the US might consider addressing the currency issue with China in a multilateral environment such as the International Monetary Fund rather than on a bilateral basis. This might relieve the pressure on a contentious issue while encouraging China to be a greater stakeholder in the global financial order.
Regardless of the shape of the new dialogue, or even its name, what is clear is that the conversation between the two nations should continue.