We come as equals

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 August, 2009, 12:00am

By all accounts, the first Sino-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue last week was a success, with 200 Chinese officials - 28 of ministerial rank - flying to Washington for two days of talks.

While there were no concrete agreements - aside from a memorandum on climate change, energy and the environment - two days of intense interaction between senior officials of the two countries during which they discussed a whole array of issues, ranging from climate change to Iran and North Korea to the global economy, in all likelihood resulted in a higher degree of understanding and, hopefully, trust.

Trust and understanding between Beijing and Washington is vital in the 21st century, when few global problems 'can be solved without the US and China together', as US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner wrote in a joint article for The Wall Street Journal.

The dialogue reflected a shift in the global balance of power over the past few years, with the United States no longer lecturing the Chinese about revaluing their currency or opening their markets. Instead, it was China that told the Americans that they have to stabilise the dollar and pay attention to the fiscal deficit.

And the United States was willing to be deferential. Mr Geithner, evidently anxious to please Beijing, America's biggest creditor, assured Chinese officials that once the economy rebounded, 'we will bring our fiscal position down to a more sustainable level over time'.

But China was careful not to sound too triumphant, knowing that its economic fate is inextricably linked to that of the US. China knows that even after the US economic recovery, mainland economic growth will not be able to rely on American purchasing power as in the past.

For China, it is a victory to be treated as an equal by the US, whose officials, from President Barack Obama down, emphasised the need for Beijing's co-operation on virtually all major regional and global issues. 'The relationship between the US and China will shape the 21st century,' Mr Obama said, 'which can make it as important as any bilateral relationship in the world.'

The Chinese made clear what they want from the US: recognition of market economy status and the lifting of a ban on hi-tech exports. Some developed countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, have accorded China such recognition, giving it more room to counter anti-dumping charges within the World Trade Organisation.

However, the US and the European Union have not followed suit, insisting first on certain criteria being met. One of the major stumbling blocks is the fact that the Chinese currency is not freely convertible. Unless China at least indicates its intention to make the yuan convertible by a certain time, Washington is unlikely to unilaterally grant market economy status.

There is a little more wiggle room where hi-tech exports are concerned. Lenin famously said that a capitalist would sell you the rope to hang him with, but the US is reluctant to approve the export of dual-use technology with military applications. Still, there is some flexibility in the system, and there is pressure on the US to act, especially now that it has agreed to greater technological co-operation with India.

On the pressing issue of climate change, both countries recognise that there will be no international agreement in Copenhagen in December unless China accepts some kind of limit on emissions. While Beijing has insisted - and the US concurs - that it has the right to grow, it may well be that in the end the Chinese will agree to cap their emissions, possibly some decades down the road, rather than insisting that they can continue with 'business as usual' indefinitely.

This round of strategic dialogue has shown that both countries recognise that they need to work with each other to resolve problems. Hopefully, it has also created the environment for such co-operation in the coming months and years.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator