Cool heads must prevail in talks

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 June, 2015, 2:13am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 June, 2015, 2:13am

The accusations, recriminations and threats in the weeks leading up to this year's Sino-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue gave an impression that the annual talks would be fraught with conflicts and quarrelling. But the world's most important bilateral relationship is made of tougher stuff. The two-day meeting in Washington ended positively, cooperation being pledged and a willingness shown to overcome differences. It is good that both sides understand that there is too much at stake to allow tensions to spiral out of control.

President Xi Jinping's pending visit to Washington in September was adequate reason to calm troubled waters. There are numerous challenges to relations, chief among them the disputed South China Sea and cyber security. These have prompted much rhetoric and finger-pointing, but a single meeting will not bring about resolution. With that in mind, the delegations, led by vice-premiers Liu Yandong and Wang Yang and State Councillor Yang Jiechi, and US Vice-President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, steered towards agreements on less controversial matters. They promised to jointly protect the oceans and vowed to boost efforts against wildlife trafficking and nuclear proliferation.

That does not mean they were shy about raising contentious issues. There were heated exchanges over hacking and the South China Sea. That was in part due to the need to play to domestic audiences, but it also is inevitable when rivalries are involved. Each side is distrustful of the other's strategic intentions and a lack of understanding continues to plague ties. The most effective way to overcome such obstacles is through exchanges of people and dialogue such as that last week.

But for Chinese and American officials, there has to be even greater effort to overcome differences. The presence of their militaries at close quarters in the South China Sea could too easily lead to a miscalculation. Wang highlighted that, saying "confrontation is a negative sum gain in which both sides will pay heavy prices, and the world will suffer, too". This realisation ensured the talks veered towards pragmatism and diplomacy.

It is as it has to be. Tensions in ties have reached a critical point and cool heads have to prevail. Biden stressed that, contending that although there were important issues with which China and the United States did not see eye-to-eye, "it doesn't mean we should stop working hand-in-hand". That is a worthy basis on which to further develop the relationship.