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Chen Guangcheng and the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue

Chinese national flags are tied to fences at Chaoyang Hospital

Editor's Note: Read an update by Jeffrey Bader on Chen Guangcheng, his decision to ask for asylum, and the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

The resolution of the drama triggered by the presence of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng in the U.S. Embassy this past week on the eve of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) removes a dark cloud from the U.S.-China relationship at a crucial time. The negotiated deal leading to the decision by Chen to leave the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on May 2, where he had sought sanctuary six days earlier, ended a brief stalemate that could have had significant negative ramifications had it not been quickly resolved.

Chen, a self-taught legal activist who has been involved in issues such as countering forced abortions and highlighting tainted blood supplies that have caused HIV/AIDS, had been under imprisonment and house arrest for years. He somehow escaped his house arrest and made his way from Shandong province to the American Embassy where he was given refuge (the U.S. government wisely refused all comment on the case in order to facilitate a positive outcome, which would have been rendered very difficult by putting a spotlight on it). The case was especially difficult for the Chinese at this moment, coming just weeks after the fall from power of the powerful former Party Secretary of Chongqing and rising star, Bo Xilai, in the wake of his ex-police commissioner seeking temporary refuge in the US Consulate-General in Chengdu.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell and Legal Counsel Harold Koh negotiated an agreement with the Chinese Foreign Ministry under which Chen chose voluntarily to leave the embassy with assurances by the Chinese to him and to the U.S. Government that he would be treated humanely, not be sent back to Shandong into house arrest, and be reunited with his family. Chen had not requested exile, so he saw this outcome as satisfactory. It was surprising how quickly the Chinese government agreed to this solution, under which the U.S. Embassy will periodically check on his status, perhaps indicating that they did not want continuing attention to this case as the S&ED took place.

While all this was going on, Secretaries Clinton and Geithner arrived in Beijing for what will be the fourth and almost certainly the last meeting of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) in which they participate. The S&ED was established in 2009 as a framework for talks by Cabinet-level officials from a slew of agencies on each side, chaired on the Chinese side by Vice Premier Wang Qishan and State Councilor Dai Bingguo, who respectively oversee the economic and foreign policy portfolios. The S&ED was not designed as a body to produce “deliverables” or solve problems, but rather more as a way of focusing on key issues, elevating attention to the U.S.-China relationship once each year, and breaking down bureaucratic stovepipes on both sides but especially on the Chinese side. It remains to be seen whether the mechanism will continue in precisely its current form under the successors to Clinton and Geithner, whether Democrat or Republican.

The U.S. delegation to the S&ED will try to focus on the large issues in the relationship on which Chinese behavior can significantly affect our interests – Iran, North Korea, the South China Sea, military and security bilateral tensions, market access, currency levels, investment flows, and factors that tilt the economic playing field. There will be a separate meeting of the Strategic Security Dialogue before the S&ED involving senior uniformed military and civilians from the defense and foreign policy establishments to discuss maritime security and cyber-issues. While the meeting will be brief, this innovation begun at last year’s meeting is an important first step toward a serious dialogue to address and contain the contentious bilateral security differences that could escalate and lead to conflict or hostility.

The S&ED comes 5 1/2 months after a trip by President Obama to Asia that was portrayed and perceived, wrongly, as a campaign to “contain” China and that has caused a certain amount of brooding on both sides about the state of the relationship. In the interim, China’s Vice President and heir apparent Xi Jinping made a generally successful visit to the U.S., and the U.S. and China have addressed the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs in more effective cooperative fashion. The two sides hope to use the S&ED to build positive momentum in the relationship. The mere fact that the S&ED is proceeding at a moment of special difficulty occasioned by the Chen case testifies to the durability of the relationship in the face of daily travails.

  • Jeffrey Bader is the John C. Whitehead Senior Fellow in International Diplomacy at the Brookings Institution. He returned to Brookings after serving in the Obama administration as senior director for East Asian affairs on the National Security Council from January 2009 to April 2011. Prior to his appointment to the Obama administration, Bader was the first director of the John L. Thornton China Center and senior fellow of the Foreign Policy program at Brookings. He brings to Brookings profound expertise in U.S. foreign policy and Asian security after three decades of experience in the Department of State, National Security Council and office of the United States Trade Representative. His latest book, Obama and China’s Rise: An Insider’s Account of America’s Asia Strategy, was published by Brookings Press in March 2012.

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