Commentary | November 25, 2015

Enhancing the Bilateral Meeting

Europe reels under the impact of the refugee crisis and the Paris attacks. The Middle East struggles with the threat of ISIS, the uncertainty of stability in states from Egypt to Iraq and rivalries in the Gulf.  Yet in China, even as it pays close attention to these crises, there’s a focus inward, as the government addresses domestic issues amid some uncertainty.

EWI’s U.S.-China High-Level Security Dialogue took place in Beijing on November 16-19. The American team—EWI staff and invited experts—was welcomed at the highest levels in China, from the think tanks of the Foreign and Defense Ministries to the Academy of Military Science of the People’s Liberation Army, from headquarters of the Communist Party's International Department to the Foreign Ministry to Peking. Yes, there is concern about terrorism, especially as a challenge in China’s west, where experts told us development has blunted efforts by extremists (and where the police keep things in check). Yes, there is concern about the increase in tensions in the South China Sea. But most of all, even among foreign policy and military experts, there is a focus on national goals internal to the country: doubling the GDP between 2010 and 2020 and achieving a “modernized country” by 2050.  

The Chinese leaders are more comfortable addressing climate change or proliferation in the context of their understanding of a multi-polar world, expressing repeatedly their commitment to win-win solutions and the common good. When pressed by visitors about how China can use its growing power to join the fight against the Islamic State, or contribute to settling the crisis of legitimacy in the Middle East, or stabilize Afghanistan, the answers reflected the primacy of domestic policy:  the importance of the reforms undertaken by President Xi. Even the One Belt, One Road policy is seen as much as a domestic project as a foreign one.

Most significant, perhaps, was the importance that the Chinese place in continued contact, and the enthusiasm with which they greeted the American team. It was clearly a priority that Wang Jiarui, Vice Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Conference, emphasized in his meeting with the team. That there are ongoing challenges he readily admitted, both in domestic issues and with the outside world, including the United States. But he expressed very strong support for the ongoing programs of EWI with China, from the Sanya military-to-military initiative that will convene, also in Beijing, at the beginning of December, and the Party-to-Party talks that he personally hopes to attend in the U.S. late in 2016. Wang gave a frank appraisal as well of his own area of special competence, relations between China and North Korea. The Chinese are watchful, pragmatic, and very much engaged not only with their neighbors in the DPRK but also with the South Koreans and Japanese; Wang himself has made a strong effort to make sure that Beijing and Seoul understand one another well. He too, along with nearly every other foreign policy expert in the discussions, made clear that the future of the understanding built between groups of international experts relies, in the case of China, in close attention to the Chinese vision of their own internal developments. Without this, he noted, the basis on which relations are founded will be incomplete.

That said, it is clearly not enough to rely on bilateral links, successful as they may be in the efforts of EWI and the Chinese. The issues that America and China face are rarely issues limited to the two countries. In the South China Sea, let us not forget the role of Vietnam, the Philippines, or Malaysia, let alone the international conventions of the Law of the Sea.

In the course of the One Belt, One Road projects, the concerns of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan will be paramount. Indeed, there is clearly a need for more breadth of vision, breaking out of the straitjacket of bilateral meetings that sometimes repeat arguments that have been stated many times before. The Chinese and the American participants agreed that more partners and more issues will make that which EWI has built that much stronger. It will allow the other issues of the day—the terrorist threat in Europe, the challenges to stability in the Middle East—to enter the conversation between America and China in new ways as well.