- By Isaac Stone FishIsaac Stone Fish is Asia Editor. A Mandarin speaker, he lived in China for seven years before moving to Washington DC. His articles have also appeared in the New York Times, the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and he has appeared as a commentator on MSNBC, BBC, NPR, Al-Jazeera, and PRI, among others.
I have a theory: every segment of news delves into a level of detail that at least a few loyal readers find fascinating. Several — if not dozens — of people appreciated Creative Knitting‘s recent advice on cardigans, and someone, somewhere, forwarded this Journal of Accountancy story on Sec. 6055 to their friend with a series of exclamation points. But that theory is seriously tested by this week’s fifth annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue, the two-day equivalent of four years at the University of Chicago.
Read this paragraph, and see how far you can get without your mind wandering: The U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue consists of meetings among four high-ranking officials from China and the United States — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi, and Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang — and their staff. "It represents the highest-level bilateral forum to discuss a broad range of issues between the two nations," explains the Treasury Department. On Wednesday Kerry and Yang will participate in "the Strategic Track Small Working Lunch," while on Thursday Kerry and Yang will participate in the "Ecopartnership Event," according to a press release outlining the event schedule. "We come to this dialogue, in particular, with a new set of opportunities and challenges," said a senior Obama administration official at a background briefing on July 8. I wrote this paragraph, and I only made it through the first sentence before I started daydreaming about the coup in Egypt.
The Dialogue is boring for a reason: its only significance is that it exists. No one is expected to say anything substantive, because neither side wants to jeopardize the event. Tensions in the relationship like hacking (more on that later), market access, human rights, and the South China Sea — issues that readers who follow international politics are passionate about, or at least interested in — are reduced to their most boring form. Here’s how one official described it in the administration’s background briefing: "Our approach to China is – for this S&ED is a key part of the President’s strategy for rebalancing to the Asia Pacific region. So you can see that we are getting marching orders to continue to strengthen our cooperation with the Chinese side." Remarks like that presage an event that is the literal opposite of a media circus — instead of colorful characters or controversies, we get men and women in sensible suits making astoundingly vague remarks.
Consider the cyber talks, the only aspect of the Dialogue that is significantly different from years past. (Yes, all four of the high-ranking participants are different, but it’s hard to find new ways to say nothing on the record.) The Chinese don’t want to talk about hacking. That they agreed at all to discuss the issue was the result of at least three years of tortuous negotiations, spurred by reports of organizations affiliated with China’s People’s Liberation Army hacking major U.S. institutions. And after Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, the United States is also less keen to have these discussions. The press schedule for the event doesn’t even include the word cyber — it is a "sub-dialogue of the Strategic Security Dialogue," according to one of the officials involved.
Jim Lewis, a former U.S. State Department official who led eight rounds of Track II, or semi-official, negotiations with the Chinese over the last three years, has unsurprisingly low expectations for the talks that he helped create. "They will exchange some name cards and agree on an agenda for the next round of talks," Lewis, who’s now a senior fellow at the D.C.-based think tank CSIS, told Foreign Policy. The United States will probably ask for a "joint statement that says we will observe existing international law;" adds Lewis, to which the Chinese will probably respond, "’Didn’t we buy you off with a working group?’ But the answer is no."
So why is the United States holding talks with China on these issues at all? Lewis’s answer recalls Winston Churchill’s famous remark on democracy. And while Lewis was talking specifically about the cyber discussions, it’s the best justification I’ve heard for why this event happens: "There are other options, but they’re all stupid."
But this is the government’s show, so I’ll leave you with a comment from the State Department official who went by Senior Administration Official Number One in the administration’s background briefing: "I think that we’re going to get ready for quite a bit of dialogue."
Additional reporting by Noah Shachtman.