If a get-together of bureaucrats could solve the world’s thorniest political problems, then the US and China would be on a strong footing. Several hundred officials from both countries held a two-day meeting in Beijing this week that brought together almost every branch of their governments. The US Department of Transport alone was involved in five workshops. The sun even managed to shine, breaking through Beijing’s heavily polluted skies.
Yet the flowery rhetoric and exchanges of business cards could not hide the sullen rivalry that is slowly defining relations between the world’s two biggest economies.
Until recently, it was assumed that the vast economic and financial links between the two countries would act as a buffer against political and military tensions: globalisation trumping geopolitics. The annual meeting between the two bureaucracies, the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, is an effort to cement that sense of common interests.
But such goodwill risks being overwhelmed by the rising tide of tense disagreements, from naval rivalry in the western Pacific to cyber hacking to complaints about market access, which are undermining the already limited trust between them.