The United States voiced deep concern on Tuesday over state-sponsored cybertheft and tension in the disputed seas of East Asia but did not let the sharp disagreements with China on pressing security issues cloud the outlook for cooperation between the world powers.
At high-level talks in Washington, China was intent on setting a positive tone ahead of a White House visit this fall by President Xi Jinping. The Chinese leader has sought deeper relations with the United States, as his nation’s economic and military clout grows.
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The sprawling agenda of the two-day U.S.-China Security and Economic Dialogue that began here Tuesday reflects the growing depth of the relationship despite the emerging rivalry between Washington and Beijing. Few major outcomes were expected, although U.S. officials touted “remarkable” progress in climate change cooperation over the past year.
Using well-worn exhortations to China, Vice President Joe Biden urged it to be a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system. In an opening statement, Biden acknowledged that there will be intense disagreements between the U.S. and China, but added: “This relationship is just too important. Not only do we depend on it, but the world depends on our mutual success.”
Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong said the two countries can keep bilateral relations on the right track so long as they “respect and accommodate each other’s core interests.” Another vice premier, Wang Yang, said neither China nor the U.S. can afford a lack of cooperation or “all-out confrontation.”
The U.S. and China are cooperating on a growing array of hot-button issues, like Iran’s nuclear program, Afghanistan and global pandemics such as ebola. But they remain at odds on human rights, religious freedom and Xi’s crackdown on domestic dissent.
Secretary of State John Kerry spoke of the need to “reduce tensions rather than add to them” in the South and East China Seas, where China’s assertive behavior and land reclamation to advance its territorial claims of islands and atolls in those waters has rattled its Asian neighbors, U.S. allies among them. China says the disputed areas are its sovereign territory.
In the cyber domain, Obama administration officials have said they are increasingly confident that China’s government was responsible for a massive breach of personnel records of as many as 14 million of federal employees and contractors.
The Obama administration has stopped short of publicly blaming the break-in on China, which has denied involvement, although Congress has squarely blamed China. State Department spokesman John Kirby could not confirm whether the breach at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management was discussed in preliminary security talks involving both civilian and military officials on Monday.
Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, however, said the U.S. remains “deeply concerned about Chinese government-sponsored cyber-enabled theft of confidential business information and proprietary technology from U.S. companies.”
He said such activity “falls outside of the bounds of acceptable state behavior in cyberspace.”
State Councilor Yang Jiechi said China was ready to work closer with the U.S. on protecting intellectual property. He said cybersecurity is very important, and countries should work together to develop an international code of conduct on cyber information-sharing.
A major focus of Tuesday’s discussions was expanding cooperation on combating climate change and renewable energy sources, a bright spot in the U.S.-China relationship, after President Barack Obama and Xi met in Beijing in November and made a joint announcement on curbing emissions.
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said that had had a “transformational” impact on international discussions on climate change ahead of a December summit in Paris aimed at forging a global climate deal.
“A lot of countries were in some sense hiding behind the idea that the United States and China had not come forward clearly. When we both came forward together it just changed the whole nature of the discussion,” Moniz said, although he declined to predict whether that would lead to a global agreement.