China-US talks could be hindered by mutual suspicion, say analysts

Mutual suspicion prompted by recent tensions over cybersecurity and the South China Sea may cloud Sino-US talks in Beijing, say analysts

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 July, 2014, 9:38pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 July, 2014, 8:04am

Senior officials from China and the United States are likely to find it more difficult to reach consensus about the two nations' strategic intentions in this week's high-level annual dialogue because of rising mutual suspicions, analysts say.

They said that although officials would stick to a positive tone in the strategic and economic dialogue today and tomorrow in Beijing, they would not try to paint a rosy picture.

More attention will be paid to people who are suspicious of the other side

The dialogue will probably see US Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew engage in intensive exchanges with State Councillor Yang Jiechi and Vice-Premier Wang Yang.

During the past month, bilateral ties have hit some difficulties, placing in limbo the consensus the two sides had reached on some issues last year.

"With things agreed on last year not making much progress, the two nations are unlikely to reach as many agreements as they did" in 2013, said Jin Canrong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University.

Progress is most likely to be made this week in negotiations on a treaty that aims to open up investment opportunities in China and towards a pledge of cooperation on new energy, Jin said.

China and the US vowed to build a "new type of major power relations" when President Xi Jinping met his US counterpart, Barack Obama, in California in June last year. The concept is vaguely defined, but it called for each country to respect the other's core interests and to not try to contain or challenge the other.

Among the things the two nations pledged to do in the presidents' meeting was to set up a working group on cybersecurity. At last year's strategic and economic dialogue, held a month later, China and the US vowed to enhance mutual trust.

The cybersecurity working group was suspended after the US charged five Chinese military officers in May with hacking into American companies to steal trade secrets. And observers say trust between the two countries has deteriorated, as Beijing and Washington have exchanged tough rhetoric over each other's presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

Beijing has accused Washington of establishing an Asian version of Nato through strengthening military alliances with nations involved in bitter territorial disputes with China.

Yesterday, a US official travelling with Kerry to the talks said Beijing's claim to almost all of the South China Sea was "problematic" and the issue was "very relevant to the United States".

When US companies demand greater access … China can [do the same]

"The sentiment of the annual dialogue is affected because of the harsh exchanges between China and the US," said Peking University international relations professor Jia Qingguo .

"In such an atmosphere, more attention will be paid to people who are suspicious of the other side."

Dr Kenneth Lieberthal, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's John L. Thornton China Centre, said he was "surprised at the extent to which tension has grown in the past year".

On a positive note, since the last dialogue, defence cooperation between China and the US has been stepped up, with China sending four naval vessels to participate in the US-led Rim of the Pacific drills for the first time.

But Beijing does not see the US upholding military alliances in Asia as crucial to safeguarding America's national security.

Washington has seen China's core interests expand to include territorial claims in the South China Sea, an area in which China has shown increasing assertiveness vis-à-vis other countries' claims, the analysts said.

"The US is now asking for greater clarity as to what China's actual claims are," Lieberthal said. "And the response from Beijing has been ... that it is unfriendly to ask for China to clarify this."

Despite the recent tough talk between the two nations, experts said they should continue these dialogues. "I think we are now at the point in the relationship where everyone needs to sit back and take a deep breath and get a little more precise in their terminology, accusations and objectives," Lieberthal said.

Additional reporting by Agence-France-Presse