US, China need to talk about things they can do

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 July, 2009, 12:00am

The possibility of tension between China and the US is ever-present. Differences on a host of issues lurk just beneath the surface; as has been repeatedly shown, the smallest misstep can raise hackles. The two days of high-level talks in Washington this week had an impressive agenda, but delivered little of substance. This does not amount to a failure, though: the basis for the meetings was new-found co-operation.

Given the rocky ties of the past, there can be no better way to build a robust relationship. Suspicion and anxiety will dissipate only with understanding and openness. Talking is essential to easing the strains. Issues of mutual interest have to be on the table.

Beijing and Washington have thankfully come round to the talking part with gusto; where there is need for improvement is in broaching their disagreements. China's policy on its currency's exchange rate is among the biggest bones of contention for the US. The US military presence in Asia rankles China. Neither matter was directly discussed in the strategic and economic dialogue.

What did feature were the global economy, diplomatic and security issues and climate change. Only on the latter was there a concrete achievement - a memorandum of understanding on co-operation was signed, although no specifics were detailed. On other matters, agreements were made reinforcing progress already under way. Broad understanding was reached on joint policies to combat the economic turmoil. Pledges were made to strengthen trade and investment ties, reduce trade imbalances and promote free trade. The sides promised to work more closely on security and development in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Every effort would be made to bring North Korea back to the six-party process to end its nuclear proliferation; concern was expressed about Iran's nuclear ambitions.

These are, in essence, the most immediate challenges facing the world. That the biggest developing and developed nations are in principle seeing eye to eye on how to deal with them is good. But there would be greater comfort if the countries' governments were diplomatically closer. The key to attaining this is regular talks by officials at all levels.

US President Barack Obama's administration has adopted a non-confrontational approach towards China. That was plainly evident in Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's sidelining of currency issues in negotiations between his side and that of his co-chairman, Vice-Premier Wang Qishan . US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton similarly refrained from highlighting the mainland's human rights record. This tack has to be maintained if a stable and co-operative relationship is to be built.

Fundamental differences remain between China and the US. Neither side would intentionally cause friction, but the risk of an accidental blunder remains high. Differing growth rates and adjustments to the economic crisis could easily escalate disputes. Using frequent talks as a basis, working ever more closely together in areas of mutual concern has to be the priority of both governments.