On the 6th and 7th of June 2016, high officials from China and the United States met in Beijing to discuss finance, trade, the environment, security, and much more. US Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew, as well as Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi and Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang co-chaired the talks, with Kerry and Jiechi handling the strategic track and Wang and Lew handling the economic track. It was the eighth annual meeting between the senior Cabinet-level officials from the world’s two largest economies. The two sides held in-depth discussions on major bilateral, global economic, and regional issues, promising to keep co-operating in various areas.

The US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (SED) was established in April 2009 by the former Chinese President Hu Jintao and US President Barack Obama. High representatives from the two sides and their respective delegation meet annually in Beijing and Washington. The SED is the flagship dialogue that connects the work of the US and Chinese governments and regularly brings together cabinet secretaries and representatives of multiple agencies from both sides. It sets the goals and direction of the China-US partnership.

The US Secretary of State John Kerry attended this year’s two-day event in Beijing as President Barack Obama’s representative. The agenda focused on China’s escalating maritime disputes with its neighbors in the South China Sea, US-China Bilateral Investment Treaty, and China’s call for greater communication over the US Federal Reserve’s interest rate decisions. There were also discussions on Hong Kong’s political and economic status, Cybersecurity, Sudan and South Sudan, clean energy, civil aviation, ocean conservation, wildlife trafficking in Taiwan, North Korea, Sino-US joint efforts to counter the Islamic State, and Middle East peacekeeping.

During John Kerry’s opening remarks at SED, Kerry focused on the benefits the dialogue has been having. He cited Climate Change milestones as an example since the initial talks in Copenhagen had failed when China and the US were on opposite sides of the key issues. After they opened up their minds to possibilities and spent a lot of hours working together, they have now built the US-China climate cooperation. Behind strong action, the two countries came together and were joined by virtually every country in adopting a historic agreement that would reduce the greenhouse gasses and curb harmful effects of climate change.

Kerry also mentioned nuclear nonproliferation whereby the two countries helped in negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of action that helped resolve the ten year-long international concern about Iran’s nuclear program, which helped remove a major threat to the stability of the Middle East and the highlighted the danger of proliferation.

John Kerry talked about their recent cooperation in adopting the strongest UN Security Council sanctions ever on North Korea in response to its continued violation of the past resolutions. He promised since they were successful with Iran, they’ve set the model and ultimately will achieve success with North Korea. He reiterated the need to stop the creation of nuclear weapons and pressure North Korea to see to it that there be peace and security in the region.

John Kerry’s list of examples kept going on with him mentioning how the US and China worked together to stop the spread of the Ebola virus in 2014. He mentioned that in 2015, the two countries had formally agreed to synchronize their actions on health policy and global development policy. He gave updates on how the two countries were working with the African Union to launch the Africa Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Kerry also talked about the importance of conservation of the ocean, curbing illegal wildlife trafficking, and a complete ban on ivory trade.

John Kerry believed that the SED was the perfect platform for the world’s two largest economies to fulfill their mutual duty since they are nations with very high global responsibilities and expectations. He explained how the US was actively looking for a peaceful resolution to the disputes of the South China Sea, which is such a hot button issue. He insisted that the US was not on any claimant’s side, but was on the side of resolving the dispute by unilateral action, the rule of law, negotiation, and diplomacy. He urged all the nations to return to international standards and the rule of law in order to find a diplomatic solution.

He was very categorical on how the two countries should not allow old thinking, including rigid ideological doctrine and the vestiges of the Cold War which could ultimately force them in the wrong direction or to even stand in the way of the 21st Century realities and possibilities. The rapidly growing globalized era doesn’t need conflict but cooperation. John Kerry acknowledged the contribution of China to philosophy, literature, arts, science, and most recently, China’s participation in the UN Security Council in global politics. He said that it was a chance for both China and the US to define a new relationship and work on their shared duty to lead in the direction of peace, prosperity, and stability.

What China Thinks about the South China Sea Dispute Overshadowing the SED

At the end of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, John Kerry praised the talks as an essential mechanism to air differences and nurture cooperation. But the contrasting comments by both Yang Jiechi and John Kerry suggested that their governments were still far apart regarding the continuing disputes in the South China Sea. During a joint appearance with Chinese officials at the Great Hall of the People in the heart of Beijing, Mr Kerry said, “I reiterated America’s fundamental support for negotiations and a peaceful resolution based on the rule of law, as well as, obviously, our concern about any unilateral steps by anyone, whichever country, to alter status quo.”

On the other hand, Mr. Yang adamantly remained opposed to the arbitration case brought by the Philippines to assert its claims in the sea. Beijing reiterates that it will not accept the results from Hague, as Mr. Yang put it, “This has not changed and will not change, the islands of the South Sea have been Chinese territory since antiquity. China has every right to uphold its territorial rights and legitimate maritime rights and interests.”

Following this state of affairs, it’s safe to conclude that even with John Kerry’s efforts, bilateral discussions even in a forum as high end as SED; it’s futile for realizing its objectives in the South China Sea. The US tried to present the impending issue to international and regional forums to impose reputational and diplomatic costs on China by shaming and pressuring it. China is evidently not happy about the US attempts to internationalize the issue, and to this effect, started its own counteractive PR campaigns to win back the international support.

The US Secretary of State John Kerry gave it a good shot, but the competition between the two countries is just getting worse, specifically over the South China Sea issue. At this moment, it’s in both China and the US interests to engage in a serious dialogue on maritime security at the highest level involving both military and civilian leaders.

This year’s SED didn’t achieve anything to that effect and left so much to be desired about how the two countries can handle the maritime security issue with much more seriousness. It’s about time the issue moved past what John Kerry or the US thinks, into recognition of the severity of the differences between the two countries and take concrete steps towards reaching a strategic compromise.

PHOTO CREDIT: Ralph Alswang