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    Greater China
     Aug 6, 2005
Tale of two talks in Beijing
By Yu Bin

Summer in Beijing is known for heat, smog, and ubiquitous traffic jams. None of this, however, deters the city from hosting two important conferences. One is the much-anticipated fourth round of six-party talks on the Korean nuclear issue that began July 26; the other was the senior dialogue on global issues between US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick and China's Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo earlier this week. The latter was first suggested by Chinese President Hu Jintao during the November 2004 APEC meeting in Chile and quickly endorsed by President George W Bush as a forum to engage in deeper dialogues on long-term, strategic issues with China.

Both talks have high stakes for regional security and US-China relations. None has yielded any tangible results, at least for the time being. New developments from these talks, however, show promising signs for the sides to work out practical solutions for some sensitive and difficult issues.

The six-party talks developed some new features in both format and substance. It is the first round with an open-ended schedule - as of Friday the talks had gone 11 days. In contrast, there were three days for the first round (August 27-29, 2003), four days for the second (February 25-28, 2004) and three more for the third round (June 23-26, 2004). This time, participants are more flexible, if not necessarily friendlier, toward each other. Unlike the previous talks, a China-drafted joint document is being hammered out and is expected to be released as a comprehensive reflection of the views of all sides and as a statement of principles for future talks.

The most important change this time is that the US and North Korea take center stage with almost daily, bilateral, closed-door meetings, something that rarely occurred during the previous talks. Other parties also seem to have assumed different roles. China and South Korea continue their "facilitating" role to persuade both sides to be more pragmatic. Russia and Japan are somewhat marginalized for different reasons: internal structural weakness for Russia since 1991 and Japan's obsession with the 1970s abduction of some of its citizens by North Korea. Regardless, pragmatism and patience has prevailed in the fourth round of nuclear talks.

While Washington was eager for the resumption of the talks on halting North Korean nuclear programs, what concerned Beijing more was the issue of Taiwan's independence, and its impact on relations with the US. This was one of the central issues in the Sino-US senior dialogue. Although the visits to the Chinese mainland by Taiwan opposition parties' leaders this year temporarily released the tension across the Taiwan Strait, the island's drift toward independence has not been fundamentally arrested, let alone reversed.

For China, Japan also looms larger over the Taiwan issue for the first time since the end of World War II, thanks to the US-Japan "2+2" meeting on February 19. Although the US-Japan joint declaration contains words such as "peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue" and "develop a cooperative relationship with China", many view the document as effectively widening the focus of the alliance from simply defending Japan to include the Taiwan Strait and China. Meanwhile, the Pentagon continues to upgrade relations with the island (the most recent development was to exchange active duty officers between Washington and Taipei as de facto permanent attaches). The Taiwan issue is also set against a backdrop of a steadily worsening ties between Tokyo and Beijing, as the region commemorates the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, bringing up old wounds from Japan's occupation of parts of China. Now the two Asian giants have been maneuvering themselves not just over the issue of history, territory, energy and security, but also over Taiwan, once a Japanese colony for 50 years, to the dismay of China.

Beyond Taiwan, Beijing is disheartened, if not disturbed, by the recent chorus of calls from Washington for Japan to get tough - both militarily and economically - with China. In this regard, several trends toward instability and uncertainty are discernible. One is the quite unusual popping up of the China issue in Washington politics during the second term of a president, which usually means more moderate, mature and stable bilateral relations after the initial learning experience in office (for example with presidents Reagan and Clinton).

Another alarming trend for Beijing is the politicization of the economic domain, ranging from the US pressure on China's currency and the bid for US oil firm Unocal from China's state-owned CNOOC. The CNOOC bid failed in part because of political hurdles in Washington in an area usually having positive and sustainable developments to offset the more problematic political and security areas of the bilateral relationship.

In the midst of politicizing economic issues, the tension and distrust in the security area continues, though not without new trends. One is the "China uncertain" theme - expressed both by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in Singapore on June 19 and in the Pentagon's annual report to Congress on China's military on July 19. The report suggested that China's military spending was much higher than published figures and that China's military capability was growing too fast for US comfort.

Rumsfeld's concerns and the Pentagon's report reflect a general mood of uneasiness with China's rapid development in the past few years. After several years of preoccupation with Iraq and the global war on terror (now being downgraded to the "global struggle against violent extremism"), China's surging economic power and global quest for energy and raw materials are simply unthinkable, if not unacceptable, for many in the US.

For years, Washington has had a hard time defining China's role in a world dominated by the US - for no reason other than the changing of the guard in the White House (the Bush administration replaced Clinton's version of China as a strategic partner to one of strategic competitor). It took both the April 1, 2001 midair collision of an American EP-3 reconnaissance plane and a Chinese jet fighter off the island of Hainan, as well as the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, for the Bush team to settle on a "candid, cooperative and constructive relationship" with China. Still, the ensuing "best relationship in 30 years", as claimed by former secretary of state Powell two years ago, turned out to be a brief interlude.

More recently, Bush remarked that the relationship with Beijing was "very complex", actually not so different from China's long-held view outlined by former president Jiang Zemin in 2001 that the Sino American relationship contains both competition and cooperation (Washington Post March 23, 2001 interview). This nuanced view of bilateral ties is more realistic and sophisticated. Indeed, as host for the six-party talks, China has effectively and perhaps irreversibly transcended its "lips-and-teeth" relations with Pyongyang and put regional interests ahead even of its own more narrow national interests.

Meanwhile, the US is reluctant to identify its high-level dialogue with China in Beijing as "strategic", arguing that the term is reserved only for US allies. Nobody, however, questions the strategic nature of the dialogue. Regardless of what the dialogue is called, "the relations between China and the United States may well determine whether our children will live in turmoil even worse than the 20th century or whether they will witness a new world order compatible with universal aspirations for peace and progress," as former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger said in a June interview with the International Herald Tribune.

In this regard, both the US-China "strategic dialogue" and the Korean nuclear talks aim to develop deeper understanding and engagement in order to avert a full-blown strategic competition for East Asian by these major powers.

Yu Bin is professor of political science at Wittenberg University in the US, senior research associate for the Shanghai Institute of American Studies, and visiting scholar at Fudan University in Shanghai. He can be reached at byu@wittenberg.edu .

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