High level American and Chinese military officials will start meeting regularly to discuss security issues, a ministerial summit of the two countries decided this week in Washington DC. China and the United States pledged to deepen both economic and strategic cooperation on Tuesday but many disputes remained unresolved.
As the experience of détente during the Cold War demonstrated, institutionalized meetings between leaders from two rivaling nations are useful to prevent lingering disagreements from upsetting the bilateral relation at large.
While China and the United States aren’t strategic adversaries, there is mounting frustration on both sides over a number of economic and military issues.
China is set to become America’s largest trading partner by the end of this decade but it sells almost three times as much to the United States as American companies sell to China. Chinese protectionism is in part to blame and at the leadership dialogue in Washington this week, the Chinese agreed to lift some of the restrictions that prohibit financial firms from freely selling products and services in their country.
The Americans also insist that China should allow its currency to appreciate at a much faster pace. The relatively cheap yuan keeps Chinese manufacturers artificially underpriced at the expense of American exporters. China is unlikely to move on currency however as long as it has millions still living in poverty and millions more dependent on exports to the West.
Washington’s closeness to New Delhi has prompted the Chinese to intensify their own relations with Pakistan, India’s western neighbor and foe. Their apparent lack of concern over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and November’s shelling of a South Korean island fueled American apprehension about China’s policy on the peninsula meanwhile.
China’s revisionist posturing in the South China Sea has antagonized neighbors in Southeast Asia and strengthened a belief that China may have stopped rising peacefully. Its military buildup is often cited as further evidence of a newfound Chinese assertiveness and there are hardliners in both countries who adhere to what President Hu Jintao lambasted earlier this year as a “zero-sum Cold War mentality.”
The outcome of the latest bilateral talks may be characterized as more talks but as long as both sides keep talking, the likelihood of actual conflict will remain low. In the security realm in particular, there is mistrust about each other’s intentions that regular, high level meetings should aim to reduce.