(Cheryl Senter/AP)

“With respect to China, I would establish a senior strategic dialogue. The one thing the relationship needs and doesn't have -- and I would say under Republicans and Democrats this has been a problem -- we don't have enough trust in the relationship. And the trust is driven by a head-of-state-to-head-of-state kind of relationship…. I would formalize a strategic dialogue that would build trust and confidence in the years to come, because they want to know what our intentions are in the region. We need to known what their intentions are in the region.”

--Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, August 23, 2011

Huntsman, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, is a fluent Chinese speaker and was ambassador to China under President Obama. So he certainly knows a great deal about the U.S. relationship with Beijing.

 But we’ve been puzzled by one of his talking points—that the United States needs to establish a “senior strategic dialogue” with China. He made that point during the last Republican debate and then again Tuesday on CNBC.

 Doesn’t the United States already have a strategic dialogue with China?


The Facts

 A senior-level dialogue was first established in 2005 under President George W. Bush, with then-Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick taking the lead on both strategic and economic issues. It was then upgraded to a more senior level, focusing more on economic issues, under Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson.

As soon as President Obama took office, he upgraded it even further, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner co-heading the annual dialogue. The two-day event has become a fixture of the diplomatic calendar, with some 200 U.S. officials meeting with their Chinese counterparts to discuss a range of issues.

 Huntsman, as U.S. ambassador, was obviously part of the process and saw the sausage being made from the inside. What he experienced has apparently soured him on the process, and so he says he wants to elevate it to a president-to-president level.

 “The current dialogue is too bureaucratic, too irregular, and ineffective,” said Huntsman spokesman Tim Miller.  “Gov. Huntsman believes our dialogue needs to be more strategic driven by regularized head of state to head of state communications. That isn't happening right now.”

 However, Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao have already met eight times since Obama became president, or more than twice a year. Certainly an expert on China like Huntsman could engage in serious dialogue with his counterpart—maybe even “build trust and confidence” at that level—but the real business would be done at the lower levels of government, as officials build relations with each other on a range of issues.

In fact, some have questioned whether the current dialogue is still necessary, given that U.S. and Chinese officials already meet on a regular basis. Just this week, Vice President Biden was in Beijing (where he made controversial remarks on China’s one-child policy.)

Michael Auslin, an Asia expert at the American Enterprise Institute, questioned “the whole idea of a strategic dialogue with a state that increasingly sees itself as at odds with our vision of global order and governance.  These are empty exercises that have resulted in very little, but make us seem ever more eager to continue the ‘dialogue.’”

Auslin added: “Huntsman may just be assuming that he would have more success at the presidential level due to a supposed unique insight and set of relationships. Of course, George H.W. Bush thought the same thing and he wound up with Tiananmen.”

 But Susan Shirk, a former State Department official in the Clinton administration and now director of the University of California system-wide Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, agrees with Huntsman that the process has “become highly institutionalized, bureaucratic, and focused mostly on economic deliverables.”

Shirk noted that in the Clinton administration there was free-form dialogue at the secretary of state and national security adviser level. “I think what’s important is that the presidents and the foreign ministers  have extended informal time to discuss global and regional issues as well as bilateral ones in strategic dialogues as part of every encounter,” she said.

The Pinocchio Test

 Huntsman’s explanation still does not quite explain what he would do differently than under the current system, how he as president would avoid the standard bureaucratic rivalries inherent in any government—or why his vision would build a “trust” that does not now exist. 

In any case, he should not leave the impression that such a dialogue does not already exist—at many levels—and should explain more precisely why his approach would be unique.

 One Pinocchio

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Watch Obama praise Huntsman at the first U.S.-China Strategic Dialogue

(1:40 mark)

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