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This dialogue promises to be different
(China Daily)
Updated: 2009-07-28 10:34

Casual observers could be forgiven for wondering what the China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), which began in Washington yesterday, means or if it would yield any desired result at all.

This dialogue promises to be different

The S&ED replaces the Strategic Economic Dialogue as a top-level dialogue to facilitate progress on bilateral and other urgent issues. But how can the addition of an "and" to the name result in a major difference? And how can it do its job without stepping on the toes of the at least 56 other bilateral forums already in place?

Cynics may say high-level political dialogues rarely yield more than broad statements of goodwill, which deliver very little in the way of concrete, workable change. And though they may play an important role in international diplomacy, they are often found wanting when it comes to on-the-ground delivery.

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But it would be a mistake to underestimate the potential of the S&ED to drive change, especially because one of the figures behind it is the US president. Barack Obama has consistently outperformed expectations. He was not the favorite to win even the Democratic primaries, let alone the US presidential election. His early lead in the election was expected to wither away after his "fresh new appeal" wore off.

After assuming office, he has been working toward achieving his ambitious objectives, ignoring cynics' fear of failure. And he has a team of high-performing people who seem to share his belief.

But it isn't just the US that sees opportunity in the new bilateral forum. President Hu Jintao's personal involvement is surely a sign of China's commitment to a new working relationship with the US administration.

All signs point to the fact that the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue is being taken seriously. But what, exactly, is on the agenda?

Much will be dictated by how ambitious the leaders of both sides choose to be - and, as ever, how well they get along on a personal level. But despite the presence of a number of issues that have been on the agenda for many years, early signs show this will not be a "business-as-usual" dialogue.

For one thing, there's the economy. The global downturn has had a major impact on the two countries and their bilateral ties. China will be eager to seek assurances that its investment in US Treasury bonds is safe, and it has already indicated its desire to protect the value of the dollar, though it has begun discussions on possible alternatives to the greenback as a global reserve currency.

There will be many incentives to discuss the two countries' strategies to help their economies recover. Performance and reform of several hard-hit industries, as well as the impact of US and Chinese stimulus packages, are likely to provide further fuel for discussion.

Trade is another topic on the agenda. Recession often shifts the focus to trade issues, and China's still-growing economy still attracts foreign companies hit hard by the global downturn at home. Both countries face protectionist sentiments and pressure to "buy national", too. The US trade deficit could be an issue, as could be the fact that much of China's economy is still fuelled by exports.

And finally, the countries may find a mutual interest in reviving the Doha Round of WTO talks.

The most unusual outcome of the S&ED, however, may be in the field of energy and environment. Trying to shift the US' dependence on non-renewable energy by promoting a cap-and-trade scheme for emissions was one of Obama's first and most high profile moves. China has already identified the need to embrace renewable energy and encourage energy efficiency.

The past six months have seen both countries make progress in this area. Energy-related issues are a significant component of any country's economic equation. But recent times have seen them collide with a growing awareness of - and concern for - the environment, and that has made them politically strategic.

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