'Strategic' US-China talks are no such thing

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Article Highlights

  • Unfortunately, Obama's administration has decided to play small ball instead of testing China's bona fides.

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  • A half-decade of top-level U.S.-China summitry has had no discernible effect on the bilateral relationship.

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  • So much for the fruits of patient diplomacy

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American and Chinese officials are meeting in Washington, D.C., this week for the fifth annual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, a gathering that so far has failed to yield a strong working relationship between the world's two most powerful nations. For President Barack Obama this may be the make-or-break year for gauging China's sincerity. Unfortunately his administration has decided to play small ball instead of testing China's bona fides.

The Strategic and Economic Dialogue is meant to address "over-arching, strategic and long-term issues," said Chinese Ambassador to Washington Cui Tiankai recently, but such high hopes are rarely followed by world-changing moments. Sometimes a Nixon goes to China. But usually diplomatic jaw-jawing ends with little substantive accomplishment.

A half-decade of top-level U.S.-China summitry has had no discernible effect on the bilateral relationship besides the unintended consequence of greater Chinese assertiveness. While officials in Washington are convinced that the U.S. must be ever more ambitious in its discussions with China, the Obama administration finds itself with no clout to keep Edward Snowden in Hong Kong, no commitment from Beijing to rein in cyber attacks on U.S. companies, and no respite from allies' complaints over Chinese maritime bullying. So much for the fruits of patient diplomacy (unless, as Chinese leader Zhou Enlai supposedly said about the French Revolution, it's too soon to tell).

After years of engagement, China now spends as much as $200 billion per year on its military and treats U.S. industrial secrets as a free tastings buffet. What denizens of Washington see as sophisticated diplomacy is often viewed with alarm by America's Asian allies and others who believe that successive U.S. administrations have misunderstood or ignored the long-term challenge posed by China.

None of this should prevent Washington from continuing to talk with Beijing, if only to articulate growing U.S. concerns. But this week, Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew should seek concrete evidence that China has changed some of its more concerning behavior.

That might mean Beijing admitting to cyber espionage, for example, and actually cutting it back, which could be confirmed by U.S. intelligence. Or China could ease security concerns in East Asia by declaring that it will prevent its fishermen from intruding into disputed waters (a pledge that would have to be matched by countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam).

Sadly, none of this seems to be on the table. Instead the Chinese have been busy talking up the "climate change working group," while the Americans have placed unrealistically high hopes on the cyber security one. Dealing with the environmental ravages of industrialization actually makes sense for the Chinese, since it is in their interest to have breathable air and drinkable water. If Washington wants to focus on ways to help achieve that, great. But it will do little to curb China's larger goal of reshaping Asian power dynamics in its favor.

Maintaining peace and security is Asia's central challenge, the one that should shape Sino-American relations. Many countries try to contribute to that goal, from attempts by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to cobble together codes of conduct to rich states like Japan sharing expertise in areas such as counterterrorism or coast guarding. Yet only China is actively trying to alter today's security environment as it becomes the most powerful nation in Asia.

Achieving this position doesn't mean that Beijing automatically has to oppose the U.S.-led system. But Beijing's massive military buildup, refusal to agree to multilateral solutions for resolving disputes, and unwillingness to restrain its fishermen all raise significant fears that China's leadership sees the world in 19th-century terms.

Such a view does China no favors. Bitter reaction to Chinese assertiveness has lost Beijing much regional goodwill over the last decade. It has resulted in an American "pivot" to Asia that Beijing interprets as military encirclement (even if those fears are overblown). And it makes Chinese officials feel increasingly at odds with the rest of Asia. That only abets suspicion in Beijing and beyond.

China would ease many of its self-inflicted pressures if it played better with others and showed interest in common regional goals. This week's meetings in Washington would be a good place to start.

Mr. Auslin is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and a columnist for WSJ.com. Follow him on Twitter @michaelauslin.

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