Washington and Beijng have spent a lot of time talking recently, with the round two of the Strategic Economic Dialogue in May and the US-China Senior Dialogue last month. It has been high profile and unprecedented – but is the relationship any better as a result?
Broadly speaking, yes.
These two powers need to understand each other and no single bilateral relationship matters more to address the looming challenges ahead: avoiding power conflicts, maintaining global economic growth, mitigating climate change, stemming the spread of dangerous weapons, to name a few.
Such exchanges improve US insights about China’s emergence and highlight the challenges and opportunities this presents, contributing to a well-crafted, intelligent and effective US policy.
And yet, in spite of these exchanges, the two countries still struggle to establish a more confident and positive relationship. Why this disconnect?
It would be simple to call for “more dialogue,” but that is not really the problem. Indeed, there has been an explosion of new dialogues between Beijing and Washington in the past several years. All of the principal US and Chinese cabinet-level departments – on issues ranging from defense to health, labor, commerce, energy, agriculture, justice, and transportation – have established senior exchanges.
Even on Capitol Hill a host of relatively new commissions and caucuses have sprung up.
In addition to two Congressionally-mandated commissions – the Congressional-Executive Commission on China and the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission – there are five other Congressional groups focusing specifically on educating members about China issues, most formed within the last three years.
But these developments are still at an early stage. As Congressmen Mark Kirk and Rick Larsen pointed out in 2005, Congressional discussion of China is “unfocused and non-productive.”
In 2006, Kirk said of political understanding of China: “The Senate view toward China is at least multifaceted with some ups and some downs. And the House view toward China is relentlessly negative and highly misinformed.”
The issue then for US-China dialogues is not one of quantity, but quality and effectiveness.
One of the key barriers to improvement are differences in bureaucratic structures of China and the US. With upper levels of Chinese government laden with vice premiers, state councillors, commission chairmen, ministers, and vice ministers, it is often difficult to determine the right “fit” between Chinese and US dialogue partners.
On the US side, issues of “turf” arise: Who should control the relationship? For example, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has run into bureaucratic resistance while trying to get a half-dozen cabinet secretaries to cooperatively take part in the Strategic Economic Dialogue. With the US system separating powers between Congress and the White House, the multitude of voices can also complicate effective communication with China.
Then, of course, there is time. Given the distance between Washington and Beijing, a cross-Pacific trip is no small undertaking for an over-scheduled senior official.
Taking it forward
The stakes are high to improve official communication between the US and China, though, and progress can be easily made.
US leaders should consider expanding the country’s diplomatic and executive branch presence in China. In addition, Washington should work with Beijing to set up formal, bilateral interagency mechanisms to coordinate the increasingly active and complex set of government-to-government exchanges.
On Capitol Hill, more resources should be devoted to understanding China, both through expansion in China-related staffing and research capacity, and expansion in the nascent interparliamentary dialogue process. At a minimum, more members of Congress need to visit China, and more Chinese politicians need to visit the US.
Looking to the longer-term, Congress needs to pass legislation which invests in American capacity to understand and respond to the challenges and opportunities China presents to US interests.
Perhaps the mantra on US-China dialogues needs to be: More may not better, but better will definitely mean more.