Argument

Time to Defriend China

Time to Defriend China

"This is not a G-2." With those words, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg finally sounded on May 11 at the Brookings Institution the death knell for the much-touted, if misguided, idea that China and the United States would band together to solve the world’s problems.

The idea of a "G-2" was first introduced by C. Fred Bergsten, director of Peterson Institute for International Economic, as a mechanism for promoting agreement between the two sides primarily to address international economic issues. However, it migrated to strategic issues, championed by old Washington hands like Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski. The idea resonated with the White House and Foggy Bottom, where hopes were high for joint efforts to solve the financial crisis and address climate change. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked in a February 2009 visit to Beijing, "The opportunities for us to work together are unmatched anywhere in the world."

That hope was short-lived. It has become painfully clear during the first year of Barack Obama’s administration that mismatched interests, values, and capabilities make it difficult for Washington and Beijing to work together to address global challenges. China’s unwillingness to sit down with the United States and its maneuverings with India, Brazil, and South Africa to undermine a larger agreement at Copenhagen were clear signs that building a special relationship would not be easy. America’s approval of arms sales to Taiwan in January and the Dalai Lama’s visit with Obama in February returned both sides to old suspicions and sensitivities.

But while we now have a more realistic assessment of what the U.S.-China relationship is not, we still lack a positive formulation of what it is — or should realistically become. Next week’s U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), the annual high-level dialogue on economic and political issues led by Clinton and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner on the U. S side and Vice Premier Wang Qishan and State Councilor Dai Bingguo on the Chinese, is unlikely to address this lack of a larger framework. In fact it will compound the problem.

In the run-up to next week’s meetings, U.S. officials have been all over the map in framing the topics for discussion. State Department officials have identified at least 20 issues of strategic importance to discuss in Beijing. The Treasury Department has laid out an equally broad agenda that includes trade and investment barriers, balanced growth, financial reform, and strengthening the international economic and financial architecture. Meanwhile, some White House officials have mentioned specific goals, such as RMB revaluation; others have said the goal is the development of a larger framework to address strategic issues; still others have said they hope that by putting controversial issues like local content requirements on the agenda, they can get the most senior Chinese officials to make decisions on topics that would typically disappear within the bureaucracy.

These are all worthy objectives and outcomes, but the lackluster history of similar dialogues suggests there are better ways to spend our time and effort. Past such dialogues have achieved only modest success delivering on specific goals. Yes, it’s true that the last S&ED yielded agreements on EcoPartnerships, collaboration on electric vehicle standards, and development of smart grids. Yet such small-scale cooperation and capacity-building have been a staple of U.S. energy and environmental talks for decades. These narrow goals would hardly seem to merit flying more than a dozen U.S. cabinet members and agency heads crossing the Pacific.

Let’s be realistic: Progress on core U.S. strategic interests largely emanates from outside such talks. For instance, at Copenhagen, China reversed its stance on two core issues related to its climate change negotiation position, establishing voluntary emission reduction targets and offering to move to the back of the line for international funding assistance. Both of these moves, however, were a response to concerns in the developing world, not U.S. pressure. Similarly, Beijing’s apparent willingness to rescind the most controversial portions of a proposed government procurement strategy that would have closed off a large portion of the Chinese market to foreign technologies arose from widescale global protest, not simply U.S. objections. And China’s recent decision to support the U.S.-led sanctions against Iran depended largely on Russia folding first and leaving China without political cover to maintain its opposition.

Having expended significant time and energy creating this overarching bilateral dialogue, the temptation for the Obama administration will be to keep the S&ED, move forward on all fronts, and see what sticks. This would be fine if the issues didn’t actually matter and our policymakers had unlimited time and patience. Neither is the case.

Joshua Cooper Ramo, Kissinger Associate Managing Director, has suggested a second option: disband the S&ED. In its place, the two sides would build à la carte dialogues around issues of real strategic interest that can be established and disbanded at will. This would free hundreds of people to work on other pressing issues, as well as eliminate the almost inevitable cycle of Washington defending what it did or did not get from high level dialogues. But it would also mean the loss of institutional continuity and personal connections that are an important part of the bilateral relationship, especially in times of crisis.

Going forward, it makes the most sense to keep the S&ED, but to downsize it. The Treasury secretary and the secretary of State should continue their discussions with their Chinese counterparts about the broad strategic issues in the relationship, but everybody else should stay home. Issue-specific discussions should be carried out by individual agencies on their own timelines: The Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade will continue conducting negotiations on innovation and industrial policy will carry on in; and the Department of Energy, the EPA, and the National Science Foundation will continue their good work on energy and climate change.

Downgraded dialogues would also more closely resemble the true state of U.S.-China relations. It would be a symbol of the possibility of greater cooperation when, and if, there is a convergence of the values, interests, and capabilities of the two sides. It would recognize the importance of the bilateral relationship, but simultaneously acknowledge that less is likely to be accomplished just by Washington talking with Beijing.

The sticking points in U.S.-China relations are mirrored in China’s relations with much of the rest world. The European Union and Japan, for example, find it no easier to negotiate with China on issues such as trade, climate change, cyber conflict, and the Dalai Lama. As a result, the United States is more likely to make progress when it spends time and energy cultivating allies throughout the rest of the world. We shouldn’t shed any tears for the G-2. Its demise enables us to make real progress with China by looking elsewhere.