Protocol Weighs Heavier Than US Concerns in US-China Dialogue: Analysts

china-us-china-strategic-economic-dialogue-june-2015.jpg Members of the American (L) and Chinese (R) delegations hold a luncheon during the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue at the State Department in Washington, June 23, 2015.

UPDATED at 02:15 p.m. EST on 2015-06-24

Chinese officials are more concerned with creating a feel-good atmosphere ahead of President Xi Jinping's forthcoming state visit to the United States than tackling some of the thornier strategic issues like cyber-security and maritime disputes in a bilateral dialogue with U.S. officials, analysts said.

Officials will wrap up the second day of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing on Wednesday after discussing a host of topics including territorial disputes in the South China Sea, allegations that Chinese government-backed hackers accessed the data of U.S. federal employees, military relations and cooperation on climate change ahead of the Paris summit next year.

A senior U.S. official said bilateral discussions thus far had been "candid and to the point" on the most contentious issues.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden referred to the need to be a "responsible competitor" in cyberspace during the dialogues.

"Nations that use cybertechnology as an economic weapon, or profit from the theft of intellectual property are sacrificing tomorrow’s gains for short-term gains today," Biden told a bilateral meeting on Tuesday.

But the U.S. delegation, while admonishing Beijing for alleged involvement in cyber attacks on U.S. businesses, stopped short of mentioning a recent attack in which hackers accessed the computers of the U.S. government's Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

The ruling Chinese Communist Party has repeatedly denied that it is behind some major attacks on U.S. computer networks—governmental, commercial and non-profit in recent months—saying there is no proof, and that it, too, is a frequent target for hackers.

A senior State Department official said the dialogues are "very good for trying to find ways to narrow our differences on these most sensitive issues in the relationship."

No progress expected

But June Teufel Dreyer, political science professor at the University of Miami told RFA that Beijing has its own agenda this week that has little to do with addressing U.S. fears and concerns.

"The topics of hacker attacks and security issues in the South China Sea will come up," Dreyer said. "But the first problem is that the Chinese government has denied any sort of responsibility for the hacker attacks."

"Secondly, China still believes it has sovereignty over the entire South China Sea. Recently, Beijing announced it had completed its reclamation work, simply because it has now built enough man-made islands there," she said.

"So I have no expectation of any progress whatsoever from the U.S.-China dialogues."

Earlier this month, Chinese state media hit out at accusations that its hackers were behind the massive breach of confidential U.S. government employee data security held by the OPM.

State-run Xinhua news agency called the accusations "irresponsible and counterproductive," accusing the Department of Homeland Security of "jumping to conclusions and making hypothetical accusations."

Sen. Susan Collins of the Senate Intelligence Committee had told reporters that the sophisticated nature of the attack "points to a nation state" as the originator.

But now, all Beijing cares about is creating a good atmosphere for President Xi Jinping's visit to the United States in September, Dreyer said.

"They have no interest whatsoever in resolving any actual issues," she said.

Yang Liyu, retired professor of East Asian Studies at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, agreed.

"China has accorded a high level of protocol for these dialogues, with several hundred people in the delegation, which suggests that it sets great store by this meeting," Yang said.

"Because Xi Jinping is making a state visit to the United States in September, the Chinese delegation wants to prepare the ground well and create a good atmosphere for that to happen," he said.

He added: "But I don't think that we will see any sort of consensus between the two sides on the hacker attacks, or the South China Sea."

Maritime tensions

Analysts have told RFA that Beijing has undergone extensive land reclamation on coral reefs and atolls in disputed waters in a bid to ensure it has an "unsinkable aircraft carrier" to back up its growing military assertiveness in the region.

As delegates met in Beijing, reports suggested that maritime tensions seem unlikely to ease in the near future, given the near-completion of Chinese runways on reclaimed land and Beijing's possible deployment of J-11 fighter jets there.

According to Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, Beijing could deploy the aircraft in the Spratly Islands, known as the Nansha Islands in China, albeit in a defensive role.

"[This] would dramatically extend the reach of the nation's military beyond its southernmost base at Sanya on Hainan Island," the paper cited unnamed analysts as saying.

"Setting up operations on the islands would move the reach of China's air force about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) further south, and in conjunction with the Liaoning aircraft carrier, take China towards its stated goal of moving away from offshore defense to open-sea protection," it said.

Last month, China's defense ministry said it would boost its maritime presence as part of an "active defense" strategy in the wake of growing regional tensions surrounding disputed island chains, while upgrading its technology to prepare for "counterattack."

The People's Liberation Army (PLA) navy will extend its reach, shifting focus from defending its coastal waters to the protection of Chinese interests farther afield, the government said in a 9,000-word white paper issued by the country's cabinet, the State Council.

U.S. officials have expressed concern over a "great wall of sand" in the South China Sea, while Beijing has said that the controversial island-building is no different from ordinary construction work like road-building.

Analysts say the construction work seems to be a direct response to the U.S. State Department's "pivot to Asia" policy of continued security focus on the region, and that regional military clashes could follow.

US 'short-sightedness'

Pin Ho, editor of New York-based Chinese news magazine Mingjing News, said the China experts on the U.S. team at the Strategic and Economic Dialogue still haven't reached a deep understanding of how Beijing is pulling the wool over their eyes.

"China lying [to the U.S.] is part of it, but the more crucial thing is the short-sightedness of the U.S. diplomacy and of U.S. companies," Ho told RFA.

"They haven't taken enough account of China's political system, and their explanations of the atmosphere and of the language used by the [Chinese] are somewhat vague."

Ho said he sees additional pressure to gloss over cracks in the bilateral relationship as coming from U.S. commercial interests wishing to expand trade without regard for the wider political context.

"We are at the tail end of the Obama administration, so there is no way we can pin our hopes on him any more," Ho said, adding: "Some China advisers have lost their strategic view when it comes to the bigger policy picture."

Reported by Ho Shan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xi Wang for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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