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The flags of China and the USA fly on a lamp post near the US Capitol in Washington during then-Chinese President Hu Jintao’s state visit on January 18, 2011. Photo: Reuters

Top-level China-US talks led to big gains in Obama years: report

  • Study by two American NGOs says dialogue yielded benefits in areas such as climate change and public health
  • Call to revive the talks today is admirable but romantic, Chinese analyst says
Regular high-level talks between China and the US helped the two countries make gains on big issues during the Obama presidency, according to a new report released as Washington and Beijing struggle to make progress.
The report, published on Monday by two American NGOs, concluded that despite some criticism, the Strategic and Economic Dialogue that ran between 2009 and 2016 during former president Barack Obama’s administration resulted in real benefits in areas such as climate change, public health, and security.

The study was conducted by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and involved interviews with 10 American diplomats and reviews of thousands of policy documents.

It was released just days after US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping had taken part in their first phone call in seven months, amid persistent confrontation on almost all fronts.


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Daniel Jasper, the AFSC’s public education and advocacy coordinator for Asia, said the research showed that dialogue benefited the United States.

“Several of the interviewees said that China was trying to follow through on the majority of their commitments. I think it’s something that is lost on the American public,” Jasper said.

“There are a lot of discussions that China was talking to the US while cheating on its commitments. That’s not what we found.

“If China was willing to put it down on paper, then they’re probably going to follow through on it. We should carry forward with dialogue because it was effectual. We are facing many crises in terms of the world now, the US-China relationship is so important to get right.”

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Tensions between the two countries are at their worst in decades, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, and disputes in trade, technology, and human rights issues.

The absence of the regular dialogue was not helping to tackle global challenges such as the pandemic, according to Jasper.

“There was a lot of collaboration in pandemic management, especially in Africa during the Ebola crisis, and the swine flu pandemic. But in 2017, the dialogue stopped. If it had continued, I think the management of the pandemic would have been better and we would be more secure in terms of climate talks, and potentially global macroeconomic stability as well,” he said.

But a wholesale return to the Strategic and Economic Dialogue model was unlikely, and a more limited exchange that prioritised issues better could be the way forward, Jasper said.

An AFSC-Ipsos poll showed that nearly two-thirds (62 per cent) of Americans think the US should restart dialogue with China to reduce tensions, according to Jasper.

Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Beijing’s Renmin University, said the report’s call for a regular exchange between top Chinese and American officials was admirable but it was a “romantic” idea.

Shi said that while some key deals such as the 2014 memorandum on rules of safe military encounters at sea and in the air, were signed as part of the dialogue, the agreements had limited lasting impact.

“As far as I recall, the dialogue was held several times but did not yield many significant economic agreements that lasted. Tensions were already there during the Obama years, and the two countries were unlikely to make major concessions to each other,” Shi said.

Sporadic high-level engagement between the two countries could become the new normal, while communication at the lower ranks of government could be carried out on a professional, as-needed basis, according to Shi.

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Zoltan Feher, a former Hungarian diplomat and a doctoral researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, said a distinction should be made between the diplomatic contact and the overall strategy of the US-China engagement. No one was questioning the usefulness of continued diplomatic engagement between the powerful countries, he said.

“But in the past decade, we’ve seen increasing evidence that the type of US strategy was probably not fit for a new age. China was already competing economically, militarily and increasingly politically, with the US starting from the post-Cold War period,” Feher said.

“The US got stuck in the so-called engagement paradigm and mostly focused on cooperating with China. The shift came about due to the US realising that they also needed to compete.”

He said managing the relationship would be a difficult “dance” for the Biden administration, but the US should not sacrifice its interests to work with China on global issues, such as climate change.
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Sino-U.S. talks ‘showed worth’ under Obama