There is only one clear case of a de facto superpower sensing a challenge from a rising power and yet avoiding conflict: the US and the UK in the late 19th and early 20th century. In that case, a common culture and shared values allowed for a peaceful transition. With the US and China, these commonalities are largely absent.
At a fundamental level, the idea that the US and China can manage affairs as China rises and still avoid international conflict is audacious and unprecedented. There are few if any challenges in the 21st century of similar magnitude.
Worryingly, an atmosphere of strategic mistrust permeates the relationship, despite recognition in both Washington and Beijing that the two sides must forge common bonds to avoid conflict. Intergovernmental communication is crucial but is the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) the type of vehicle to manage this process? It can be.
The scope of the relationship and extent of cooperation between the two sides is broader than at any previous point in history and warrants such a process. We cooperate on everything from environmental standards to container security.
From the US government’s perspective, the dialogue is useful because it unifies the numerous ministries and departments under high level leadership from Beijing. This alleviates stove-piping within both bureaucracies and enhances predictability. It allows for a consistent, frank exchange of views that can help in reducing opportunities for missteps and mistrust.
It also can build momentum to encourage the Chinese to "do something" on the issues that we need to address. The structure of the dialogue incorporates key US considerations – a desire for China to play a more active, helpful role in the international community while at the same time recognizing the importance of our mutual economic and trade relationship.
However, the prism of the Western press and US Congress does not focus on the utility of procedural dialogues. "What were the tangible results – the deliverables – from the dialogue?" becomes the operative question. Did the US persuade China to revalue its currency or restructure its indigenous innovation policy? Will China exercise leverage to punish North Korea? Can we reach consensus for a binding agreement on climate change?
An increasingly confident Beijing will not bend to US interests overnight, if at all, but addressing some issues does require rapid, clear action.
In this way, for those on Capitol Hill the process can be said to be almost counterproductive. A massive amount of time is committed by some 200 officials in the run up to the S&ED. This heightens expectations as to what can be accomplished, and reinforces frustrations when issues remain unresolved.
So a question arises: Is Washington really managing the relationship or are we just talking for the sake of it?
For the Chinese leadership, there is less of a need for immediate results. Rather, each choreographed meeting is almost theater-like, symbolic of China’s rise and its growing stature in the world. The process also serves to reinforce Chinese domestic perceptions that the country is taken seriously even by the current superpower.
But at the same time, the Chinese leadership understands well how the relationship with the US has served to encourage reform, support economic growth, and increase living standards – ensuring that the Party has a platform for maintaining political leadership. Economic cooperation and trade with the US is in China’s interests.
Ultimately, the US will come to accept the reality that the S&ED is a high-level opportunity for grand conceptual thinking, which is, after all, the vision China has for the meeting. Washington will downplay its utility as an action-forcing event to achieve near-term policy objectives.
One wonders, given the transactional nature of American policymaking, whether senior leadership in the US can stay interested in such an exercise. Reducing strategic mistrust may be one of the biggest challenges of our era, but measuring progress on that effort is not easy, and certainly not in increments that can satisfy more narrow Congressional and other public demands.