For the third time in two years, hundreds of Chinese officials are meeting with hundreds of their U.S. counterparts to discuss dozens of bilateral topics in dozens of meetings. After the first day of the two-day event, there aren't any new bilateral agreements to announce, and officials say there aren't any expected soon.
"Now more than ever, with two years of dialogues behind us, success depends on our ability to translate good words into concrete actions on the issues that matter most to our people. So as we begin this third round, we will keep that goal in clear focus," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in her Monday morning remarks at the opening of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which is being held at various locations in downtown Washington.
She praised the new high level participation of senior officials from China's People's Liberation Army and rattled off a long list of issues that would be discussed, including: military-to-military relations, the situation in the Middle East, the need to rebalance the global economy, Iran sanctions, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and human rights.
Vice President Joseph Biden delivered the strongest message on Chinese human rights practices in his Monday morning remarks, when he said, "We have vigorous disagreement in the area of human rights."
"We've noted our concerns about the recent crackdown in China, including attacks, arrests and the disappearance of journalists, lawyers, bloggers and artists," Biden said. "I recognize that some in China see our advocacy [on] human rights as an intrusion and Lord only knows what else. But President Obama and I believe strongly, as does the secretary, that protecting fundamental rights and freedoms such as those enshrined in China's international commitments, as well as in China's own constitution, is the best way to promote long-term stability and prosperity of any society."
Jeffrey Bader, the recently departed senior director for Asia at the National Security Council, wrote in a Brookings Institution policy brief that the dialogue "was not conceived as a mechanism to deal with bilateral crises or to produce specific ‘deliverables,' but to develop a richer, more intensive dialogue between senior officials on the two sides than would be possible in the usual quick in-and-out visits, and to break down bureaucratic stovepipes among agencies, particularly on the Chinese side, not accustomed to coordinating effectively with each other."
On Sunday, Clinton awarded Bader the Secretary's Distinguished Service Award, standing alongside Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo.
Critics of the Obama administration's China policy see the event as yet another example of the administration placing style over substance, and raising expectations of progress in the U.S.-China relationship without delivering results.
"By far the most important economic issue for America and China is the related imbalances in our economies," wrote the Heritage Foundation's Derek Scissors. "The U.S. recognized this several years ago and has repeatedly raised the matter. Result: Both economies are now more imbalanced than when the dialogue began. The main reason is simple: Neither country wants to bear the pain of rebalancing. Instead, they take to telling the other side why it should rebalance."
A senior administration official, speaking to reporters after the conclusion of the first day's meetings, said that the primary discussion of tough economic issues will be held on Tuesday.
"Tomorrow the focus is on how the U.S. and China can rebalance our economies so we can strengthen our recoveries. Monetary and exchange rate policies are certainly be a focus of those discussions," the official said. But he warned not expect any major announcements. "[The Chinese currency] is not moving enough and no one's satisfied, but it's appreciated more than 5 percent against the dollar [over the last year]," he noted.
Undersecretary of State for Economic, Energy, and Agricultural Affairs Robert Hormats took the Chinese to task for their policy of giving regulatory, financial, and legislative support to state-owned enterprises.
"The biggest challenge in addressing these issues effectively is forging a common understanding that state-controlled competition is not competition, and that competitiveness cannot be bestowed by decree. The trade distortions created by the ‘China Model' are disadvantageous to our U.S. companies trying to compete for opportunities around the world, and a direct threat to U.S. jobs and competitiveness," Hormats said.
And Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Monday afternoon that climate change, specifically short-term climate change forces, was a major topic of discussion between Energy Secretary Stephen Chu and his Chinese counterparts.
As for the military component of the talks, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell told reporters last week that the United States intends to engage "not just traditional players in the Foreign Ministry but also other players in the Chinese government, including the military."
Dan Blumenthal, a former China desk officer at the Pentagon and now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said that while increased military dialogue and the building of relationships is good, the administration must not depend on such dialogue to halt the growing tension in the bilateral security relationship.
"The Chinese are moving very cautiously, the political leadership in China is very adverse to making any bold decisions, and the PLA has very little interest in talking to us about anything of substance," he said. "The summits matter less than what we are doing on the ground in response to what China is doing."