May 11, 2011

U.S.-China Talks Reveal Gap In Agendas

The U.S.-China relationship may have reached its strongest footing of the Obama presidency, judging from high-level talks that came to a close in Washington yesterday. But some observers noted a palpable gap in focus between the two powers, with the U.S. addressing a broad agenda -- ranging from concerns over the value of the yuan to human rights -- and China more narrowly concentrated on issues pertaining to its sovereignty.

The core of China's agenda going into the Strategic and Economic Dialogue was a strategy of maintaining control "over their territory and their waters, and frankly their cyberspace," says Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for New American Security in Washington.

"They think we're behind their Jasmine revolution -- they're paranoid about their sovereignty," said Cronin, who spoke with Trend Lines on Tuesday. Of equal, if not greater importance, he added, is the issue of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.

The issue's relative absence -- publicly at least -- from this week's talks may be due to the fact that the Obama administration has been slow to recognize the increasing importance China has placed on the matter. It wasn't until the end of President Barack Obama's first year in office, says Cronin, that the administration took note of the Chinese desire to "change the rules of the road" on U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.

Tensions between China and Taiwan have eased since the Chinese Nationalist leadership came to power in Taiwan in 2008. Last year's inking of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement between the two essentially amounts to a free trade pact across the Taiwan Strait and, according to Cronin, puts "Chinese economic leverage squarely in the lead in all dealings with Taiwan."

Such leverage has coincided with a stiffening of China's posture toward the United States when it comes to selling weapons to the island.

When Obama arrived in the White House, the United States had delivered on about half of an $11 billion arms package for Taiwan agreed to by the Bush administration in 2001. The Chinese, said Cronin, had expected Obama to pivot away from the Bush-era policy and were quite taken aback when his administration announced in 2009 that the U.S. would be going forward with the second half of the package.

"For eight months, the Chinese froze military to military relations with the U.S. and [blocked] negotiations on a range of issues," said Cronin. 

Relations began improving last year with China's gradual increase in the value of its currency, which has long been a major U.S. grievance. It was a small adjustment compared with what the Obama administration had pushed for, but "enough to open the door to a more realistic strategic dialogue," said Cronin. 

While such realism was the impetus behind the positive nature of this week's talks, the issue of the weapons sales still lingers. "The Obama administration's posture is to retain strategic ambiguity to resist the red lines that China, in this dialogue, emphasized again -- namely that the U.S. not sell F-16s to Taiwan," said Cronin.

Though coincidental, it's worth noting that within an hour of this week's talks ending in Washington, Taiwan announced it would delay purchases of U.S. Blackhawk helicopters and Patriot air defense systems because of budgetary shortfalls.