Tuesday June 2, 2020


April 30, 2012


On May 3 and 4, 2012, 200 American officials will attend the annual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) in Beijing. The forum was established by the joint announcement of Chinese President Hu Jintao and American President Barack Obama in 2009. Since then, the S&ED has become the largest and most important of the over 60 dialogue platforms that exist between the U.S. and China. This year marks the fourth S&ED, which is hosted each year by four “special representatives”: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo on the strategic side and U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan on the economic side.

Both American and Chinese officials acknowledge the S&ED as an important part of the bilateral relationship. The annual forum, with face-to-face meetings between high-level representatives, provides a way to build up mutual trust and ensure that lines of communication are always open. Joint statements by the two countries have highlighted the achievements of past S&EDs in areas such as finance, trade, investment, climate change, and counterterrorism. This year, however, the S&ED is likely to be complicated by several issues that are currently straining U.S.-China relations.

First, both China and America are in the middle of tense political atmospheres. America is six months away from its 2012 presidential election, and thus President Obama faces political pressure from his Republican rival to “get tough” on China. For example, Obama’s administration recently agreed to consider selling F-16s to Taiwan at the request of a Republican senator, despite strong Chinese disapproval. Meanwhile, China is preparing for a long-planned leadership transition in the fall of 2012, but the fallout over the Bo Xilai scandal threatens to complicate the smooth transition China’s leaders sought. Thus both sides are incredibly concerned with the way their actions will be interpreted by a domestic audience, which makes it more difficult to achieve the sort of compromises needed for a successful bilateral forum. Representatives at the S&ED face the double burden of furthering U.S.-China relations while also juggling competing domestic political interests.

Another complicating factor is the fate of Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng. Chen, a blind lawyer who advocated against forced sterilizations and abortions, recently escaped house arrest and is rumored to be in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. While both the American and Chinese governments have refused to comment on Chen’s case, sources close to Chen, including Bob Fu, founder and president of ChinaAid, claim that high-level talks on Chen’s fate between Chinese and American officials have already begun. Seeming to add support to these claims, Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell made an unannounced trip to Beijing, presumably to help further the negotiations over Chen before Secretaries Clinton and Geithner arrive. The situation is especially thorny because American officials, including Hillary Clinton, have spoken out previously in support of Chen, demonstrating American officials would like to aid Chen. However, the Beijing government is likely to see American intervention in Chen’s case as interference in its domestic affairs.

While the future of Chen Guangcheng, combined with domestic politics, makes a productive Strategic and Economic Dialogue more difficult, both sides seem committed to carrying out the dialogue. On an interview with Fox News, Obama’s top counterterrorism aide, John Brennan, said that Obama wants to make sure that “the appropriate balance is struck” regarding Chen specifically and human rights in general. Expanding on this remark, Brennan added, “the president tries to balance our commitment to human rights” while making sure “that we can continue to carry out relationships with key countries overseas.” Likewise, an anonymous Chinese official quoted in The Independent suggested that China would “compartmentalize” their concerns about Chen in order to make progress at the S&ED. The official added, “The relationship with the United States is extremely important to China and this [the S&ED] is a sign of commitment and even of friendship.”

While the risk remains that this upcoming Fourth S&ED will be overshadowed or at least sidetracked by questions about Chen Guangcheng, there are many other issues both America and China are eager to resolve. The U.S. wants to continue to make progress on its core concerns: urging China to undertake currency and economic reforms while also seeking Chinese support in preventing nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea. For its part, China has called for economic reforms in America, and wants to ensure the global economy continues to recover from the financial crisis. Both sides also recognize the potential for misunderstandings and conflict in the South China Sea, where a dispute between China and the Philippines (a U.S. ally) has raised tensions (see the USCPF news brief, “China, Philippines in Stalemate Over Disputed Region“). Both sides want to increase military cooperation and trust to ensure better cooperation and understanding in the Asia-Pacific region.

There is much ground to cover on all of the above issues, and progress could be made by a fruitful S&ED. However, it will be a challenge to keep the discussions focused and productive given recent events. The strength of U.S.-China relations over the past few years has been an ability to weather crises such as the 2010 American arms sale to Taiwan or China’s recent veto of a UN Security Council Resolution on Syria. A productive S&ED would be a positive sign that U.S-China relations can successfully navigate the complex issues currently causing friction between the two powers.


For more information on the upcoming Strategic and Economic Dialogue and the effect of tensions over Chen Guangcheng, please see the following news sources:

CRI – “Expert: China-US Strategic & Economic Dialogue to Deepen Bilateral Economic Ties

The Guardian– “Obama urges China to improve human rights record amid dissident row

The Independent – “Dissident in US embassy is ‘perfect storm’ for Chinese

NY Times – “In Crisis Over Dissident, U.S. Sends Official to Beijing

Reuters – “U.S. eyes testy China talks, Chen backer expects Chinese decision

Washington Post – “Obama wants to strike ‘appropriate balance’ on Chinese dissident, official says

Xinhua – “China, U.S. to hold fourth S&ED in Beijing


For Chinese language commentary on the upcoming S&ED, please see the following news sources

People’s Daily (人民日报) – “回顾过去、着眼当前、展望未来——对第四轮中美战略与经济对话的几句建言

Phoenix (凤凰网) –”外交部就第四轮中美战略与经济对话举行吹风会

Sina (新浪新闻) – “第四轮中美战略与经济对话将宣布重启双边谈判


Compiled and edited by Shannon Reed.