President Bush has decided the United States and China should begin holding regular senior-level talks on a range of political, security and possibly economic issues, signifying both China's interest in the prestige of such sessions and the administration's efforts to come to grips with China's rising influence in Asia, senior administration officials said.
Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick has been assigned to head the U.S. delegation, and a Chinese vice foreign minister will be his counterpart, officials said. Regular meetings between the two countries have never been held at such a level.
Chinese President Hu Jintao formally asked Bush to consider engaging in what the Chinese call a "strategic dialogue" during an economic meeting in Chile last November. During a visit to Beijing last month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice confirmed that the United States is interested in regular senior-level talks, but the administration has chosen to call the meetings a "global dialogue" because, officials say, the phrase "strategic dialogue" is reserved for close U.S. allies.
Bush came to office in 2001 suggesting China was a "strategic competitor," but cooperation between the two nations steadily increased after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In the past four years, China has emerged as a formidable power in Asia, wielding both economic clout and growing political muscle. China's rapid improvements in its military capabilities -- much of them aimed at the Taiwan Strait -- have greatly concerned Pentagon and White House officials.
Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith, in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in February, warned that China was "facing a strategic crossroads" and that "if it wants to continue to prosper, it will choose a benign path that will allow the world to accommodate its rise peacefully." Otherwise, he said, there would be "a truly gigantic problem in international affairs."
Experts say that with the United States distracted in Iraq, China has filled a vacuum in Asian leadership. "China has moved in and assumed a dramatic regional role," said Kenneth G. Lieberthal, a Clinton administration official now at the University of Michigan. "Everyone in the region believes the movement has shifted toward China in a way no one anticipated 3 1/2 years ago."
Reflecting the administration's concern, Rice initiated an effort during her trip to Asia to make India into a major world power and elevate Japan as a key ally on a range of international issues.
During Zoellick's meetings, U.S. officials expect to ask tough questions about China's rapid rise in military capabilities. "It will almost certainly be raised in the strategic dialogue," a senior administration official said. During Rice's visit to Beijing, she was "very direct in our concerns on their military buildup," he added.
Jing Quan, a Chinese diplomat who is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the talks with the United States would provide "a platform, a basis for the two countries to have direct, frank and deep dialogue." He said that "through such effective communication, both sides would be in the position to avoid actions and policies that would lead to misunderstandings."
Jing said China is especially interested in discussing the dispute over Taiwan, which China regards as a renegade province. But U.S. officials have larger goals. They want to persuade China to adjust its policies in such flashpoints as Burma, Nepal and Sudan, where Chinese economic interests have been at odds with U.S. diplomatic efforts to deal with deadly internal strife.
Chinese officials "are more interested in optics and the prestige of being a player and power center in the world," the senior administration official said. "We are interested in a constructive and cooperative and candid dialogue. China is everywhere now, and we want to raise the bar of expectations on how they pursue their interests."
The talks are to be held periodically, but the timing and frequency have not been decided. The Chinese would like the first meeting to be held in Beijing, whereas the United States favors starting the sessions in Washington. China has initiated such discussions with France, India and other nations in recent years.
U.S. officials have also pressed to include economic issues in the sessions, in part because Zoellick is a former trade representative, though U.S. officials are uncertain about whether the Chinese bureaucracy that divides economic and foreign policy issues can handle the request. Alan P. Larson, undersecretary of state for economics, began lower-level talks on business and agricultural issues during the first term with officials at the National Development and Reform Commission and other agencies.
China's inability or unwillingness to rein in intellectual-property theft has been a source of frustration for U.S. officials. DVDs of recent Hollywood movies, for instance, are sold openly for less than $1 just blocks from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
The growing coordination between the United States and China -- even when each country's objectives may be different -- is illustrated by the crisis over North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
The United States has increasingly relied on China to persuade North Korea to attend six-nation talks as a way to dismantle Pyongyang's nuclear programs, even though China often appears to value stability on the Korean peninsula over the goal of disarming -- and possibly destabilizing -- North Korea.
Indeed, U.S. officials have been frustrated that China has often acted as a mediator in the talks rather than as a full participant. Frequently, China has called on the United States and North Korea to show greater "flexibility and sincerity" in dealing with each other.
U.S. officials in recent weeks have privately told the Chinese that there is little appetite in Washington for that rhetoric and that it is time for China to demonstrate more toughness with North Korea.
Publicly, China still refers to the United States and North Korea as the "major parties" in the talks and says the burden should not be on China to get Pyongyang back to the table. But in recent talks with U.S. officials in Beijing, Ning Fukui, China's special ambassador for the nuclear issue, indicated growing frustration on the part of China at North Korea's behavior, U.S. officials said. Ning for the first time did not call for additional flexibility by the United States and said the two sides may need to discuss "next steps" in addressing the crisis -- a euphemism for possibly ending the six-party process.
U.S. officials are not sure what to make of Ning's comments, though some believe they may signal a growing willingness to pressure North Korea. In the past, China has generally lured Pyongyang to the talks with offers of cash and other sweeteners -- exactly the opposite of the Bush administration's mantra that North Korea should receive "no reward" for its behavior.