What the U.S. got out of China engagement through the S&ED

Foreign Affairs

Prior to the Trump administration, top government officials from the world's two largest economies used to meet annually in a massive forum. Susan Thornton, Rorry Daniels, and Daniel Jasper appeared on the Sinica Podcast to discuss a new study that pushes back on the view — now popular in Washington — that the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) was unproductive.

s&ed
Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and then Vice Premier Wáng Qíshān 王岐山 meet at the S&ED in 2009. Photo via U.S. Treasury Department.

Engagement as a guiding principle of U.S.-China policy, as the National Security Council’s Asia czar, Kurt Campbell, seems fond of saying, is dead. But was its demise, whether it was murdered or merely euthanized, actually justified? And can it be resurrected? [Editor’s note: “The period that was broadly described as engagement has come to an end” is the exact phrasing Campbell used on May 26, 2021.]

Listeners of the Sinica Podcast will have heard the arguments before. Opponents of engagement point to the increasingly illiberal China under Xi Jinping as manifest proof that China didn’t become the more tolerant, participatory, benign stakeholder that engagement’s champions allegedly promised it would. Those champions say that this mischaracterizes their expectations — that it’s a straw man argument, no one ever expected China to become some liberal democracy overnight.

These arguments, whatever their merits, are not likely, though, to change anyone’s mind. But what if we could actually take a look at engagement in action and see what did come of the policy’s implementation? What if we could look at both the costs and the benefits in the engagement ledger, as it were, and get a sense of what it did, and did not, accomplish? Done right, wouldn’t that give us at least something more substantive to debate?

The most solid institutional manifestation of the policy of engagement during the critical Obama years was the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, the S&ED. As such, if we want an assessment of engagement in action to see whether it actually worked, then the S&ED is probably what we should look at. My guests on this week’s Sinica Podcast have done just that.

The National Committee on American Foreign Policy, in cooperation with the American Friends Service Committee, undertook an extensive audit of the S&ED across the eight years that it ran, from 2009 to 2017. The upshot is clear: This is a strong argument that exonerates the policy of engagement, demonstrating quite clearly that engagement actually did bear fruit. In the modest language of the report’s authors, it fills in the benefits side of the engagement ledger, but what is on that side of the ledger is actually quite substantial.

This is especially impressive if we keep in mind that the S&ED process got started in 2009, during that first awful full year of the Great Recession that followed the Global Financial Crisis, and continued during a very challenging time where Beijing had less patience for what it saw as American lecturing.

Across these years, there were a number of serious issues that were already visible and rising above the waterline. The South China Sea, numerous cyber espionage and other issues around hacking, and so forth. Clashes over internet censorship, or “internet sovereignty,” as China later came to call it. Chinese misgivings about American democracy promotion in various geographies, especially in the Middle East, after 2011, and much more. As this report shows, though, even during this very trying time, there were solid accomplishments.

Joining me to discuss this on the Sinica Podcast are Rorry Daniels, Daniel Jasper, and Susan Thornton, who were all deeply involved in this audit.

Rorry Daniels is the Deputy Project Director at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy’s Forum on Asia-Pacific Security, where she organizes research and Track II discussions on security issues and conflict mediation in the Asia-Pacific.

Daniel Jasper is the Public Education and Advocacy Coordinator, Asia, for the American Friends Service Committee and was the co-lead on the audit. His work focuses on China and North Korea.

Susan Thornton is a veteran diplomat whose last post in government was as Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs. Susan is currently a Visiting Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School and a Senior Fellow at the Paul Tsai China Center. At the State Department, Susan had a direct hand in many of the things touched on in the report, from bringing China to the Paris Climate Accord to the U.S.-China cyber agreement. Susan oversaw this S&ED audit in her capacity as Director of the Forum on Asian-Pacific Security at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy.

Listen to the podcast episode here or read a lightly edited transcript of the podcast below:

Kaiser Kuo: So, Rorry, let’s start off with you and jump in and talk about the S&ED itself. For our younger listeners who might not remember, perhaps we should review what exactly the S&ED, the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, was. Even for those who were around at the time, there might still be some confusion about how it differs from its predecessor, the SED, the Strategic Economic Dialogue, which was convened during the Bush-43 administration. So maybe you can give us an overview of what S&ED was, and the significance of the ampersand that it got during the Obama administration.

Rorry Daniels: Absolutely. So the Strategic and Economic Dialogue was an annual forum of Cabinet secretaries or ministers, and other high-level officials from the U.S. and China who would meet to review, to revise, and to announce progress on a very broad range of topics on the bilateral agenda. It arose, as you alluded to, from the Strategic Economic Dialogue that was convened under the George W. Bush administration between the Treasury Department and their counterparts in China, mostly to focus on economic issues. And to do so from a bottom-up working-level negotiation perspective.

The Bush administration also had, at the time, what it called a Senior Dialogue, which was a separate process. This was the strategic track, so to speak, of the U.S.-China relationship in that administration. And it was meant to shine some leadership attention and get some leadership-level buy-in on the strategic issues between the two sides, but it was held primarily at the deputy secretary of state or under secretary level.

So at the beginning of the Obama administration, these two mechanisms were combined into the Strategic and Economic Dialogue. And what that ampersand did was first, it elevated the strategic issues up to the Principal’s level, the Secretary of State and higher. So it married both the top-down and bottom-up approaches, and it also married the strategic and economic issues into one forum.

Kaiser: Right. Great. Dan, there was another set of conversations that were happening under the auspices of the U.S.-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade, the JCCT. How should we think about the differences and the overlaps between the S&ED and the JCCT?

Daniel Jasper: Yeah, I think that’s an important question. The JCCT, I think, has a lot of longevity in history behind it that even supersedes the SED. So the JCT goes back to 1983, I believe. And so it has a very long history. It’s headed by, on the U.S. side, the Secretary of Commerce, as well as the U.S. Trade Representative. And on the China side, it’s headed by the Ministry of Commerce. So, when the S&ED was put into place under Obama, these two interfaced, and I think there was a little bit of struggle between jurisdiction. The JCCT is a little bit more specific in nature. It’s convened — I think it has about 16 different working groups that are more specific in nature. It covers everything from Intellectual Property rights, to pharmaceutical and medical devices, to environmental protections, statistics, and so on.

The economic track of the S&ED was a little bit broader in scope. And so I think that these things initially sort of rubbed against each other, and there was a little bit of a struggle about what was going to cover what. But as time went on, I think there was a rhythm established. Or, this is the sense that I got from interviewees, anyways, was that it allowed officials to take two bites of the apple, as it were. Where the S&ED was held in the summer and the JCCT was held in the winter. So that allowed officials to both put commitments forward in the summer, and then perhaps see where their progress was in the winter or vice versa.

I think what’s important here is that the S&ED, since it was a little bit broader in scope, probably added a little bit more momentum to the already existing JCCT, rather than the other way around. And so there was a lot of momentum and work-through that had already existed with the Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade, but the S&ED certainly put a lot of wind in its sails, so to speak.

Kaiser: Excellent. So Susan, on the U.S. side, the convening of the S&ED, in its early genesis, was driven during the transition period by outgoing Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, and by incoming Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. Was the whole urgency around the need to convene this mainly because of the Global Financial Crisis? Was that what prioritized this? And then who was, I understand Wáng Qíshān 王岐山 was involved on the Chinese side. Was he the principal person driving that from Beijing?

Susan Thornton: So you’re right, Kaiser. When we think about the beginning of the S&ED, of course, it came right at this very pivotal moment when we were experiencing a global financial meltdown. There was no question at the time. And I was working on China. Kurt Campbell had come in as the Assistant Secretary for East Asia and Pacific. We were working with Treasury counterparts. Of course, Tim Geithner came in as the secretary. And there was no question at the time that the S&ED in some form would continue because we were coordinating with China on an urgent and almost daily basis at that time, as we were with other countries around the world, to try to keep the financial system from melting down. We had the initial meeting in Washington, D.C., on coordinating macroeconomic policies in the wake of the crisis. Then we had a meeting in London, then it came back to Pittsburgh, et cetera. And we were working all during that time, very closely with the Chinese.

The real issue in the transition was about combining or not combining the two tracks that Rorry was talking about. There’s a lot of misinterpretation of that. At the time, the Treasury Department thought the State Department was making a grab for territory or turf or whatever, and trying to muscle in on the Treasury Department’s very important global stability enhancing dialogue.

My interpretation of it is very different. We had similar tension between Treasury and Commerce over the JCCT and the S&ED, as Dan alluded to. But my interpretation really was that, as Rorry said, the Strategic Security Dialogue, the senior dialogue was this top-down discussion on very thorny issues and it was pretty clear, I think, and even today in the minds of many, that many of these issues were sources of great frustration, differences, tensions, and were over things that were very hard to make progress on.

Whereas all of the dialogues on the economic side were focused a bit differently, such that they could be teed up to demonstrate progress. And there was a feeling, I think, on the part of the National Security elite in Washington at the time that the U.S.-China relationship was too heavily weighted on the economic side. And that these frustrating security issues were not getting enough attention or were not given serious consideration by the Chinese side, who were very much devoted to these economic dialogues and moving ahead on those issues.

And so the idea of putting the two together was both for coordination among U.S. government agencies, which is always notoriously difficult, but in this case, even more difficult because of the complexity of the issues. But second, to put the security issues on an equal footing with the economic issue. So the Chinese would take them more seriously. And so that we could try to make some progress.

Kaiser: Right. Well, that makes a lot of sense. How involved was the Chinese leadership on their side? Hú Jǐntāo 胡锦涛 and Wēn Jiābaǒ 温家宝, and then after 2013, Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 and Lǐ Kèqiǎng 李克强, were they directly involved in this, or was this something that they sort of delegated down to people like Wang Qishan?

Susan: The question about the establishment of this particular sort of diplomatic mechanism. They would certainly, the Chinese leadership, would have been directly supportive of establishing a more robust set of interactions, but they were not directly involved.

Wang Qishan was very involved as the former point person at the SED, the Strategic Economic Dialogue. And I guess, Dài Bǐngguó 戴秉国 on the Chinese side, on the State Council and Foreign Ministry side as the Deputy Foreign Minister was very involved in pushing it forward on that side. But I think basically the Chinese were very much in receive mode, but they were very happy to see that the U.S. was prioritizing and elevating and expanding the dialogue. And I think the other thing that was going on at this time that’s important to remember is that, really this was the heyday of globalization, where so many global issues were coming onto the international agenda. Things that we hadn’t had to grapple with before. And we were finding that we needed to do a lot more coordination with China. So none of this was static. A lot of things were moving, a lot of new things were happening and all of those push toward developing this kind of combined and expanded mechanism.

Kaiser: Susan, I will stay with you for just a second here because you were so directly involved. And I want to give our listeners a sense of the mechanics of the thing. How many people from each side were participating, besides State and Treasury, what other cabinet level officials were involved? Were the State and the Treasury components of it kept relatively compartmentalized and separate, or were they commingled? And I guess I want to get just even just sort of some color on it, or what kinds of venues are we talking about? What was the sort of run-of-show? What was the setting like? What were the seating arrangements like? What was it like? What sorts of meetings are we talking about here?

Susan: Huge meetings. You know, following on my last comment about globalization and how many issues were coming onto the docket — it started off with mainly the State Department and the Treasury Department setting the agenda, talking about issues that they had traditionally touched on in their dialogues. But as new issues came to the fore, new cabinet secretaries wanted to engage with their Chinese counterparts directly on the matters that they were interested and expert in, and they would be added to the docket. And one of the big criticisms, and we’ll probably get into this later in the show, is that we have the entire U.S. government showing up at these meetings. But that was because every cabinet secretary, for example, Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, even, you know, oddly enough, there was a dialogue about National Parks. So even our Secretary of the Interior, I don’t think was ever at the meetings, but there was a discussion about how do you set up National Parks and this kind of thing.

So there were all kinds of issues that came up. Some had to do with addressing issues of international cross-border-type coordination. But a lot of them were also issues addressed at talking to China about what we had learned in doing various things as they were setting up various institutions in China. So there is this dual nature of the sort of developed developing country dynamic plus just coordination among major powers on threatening global challenges.

On the venues question, it was fascinating. You know this was a very protocol-intensive effort. And, you know, you talk about arranging the chairs at the table, et cetera. It was all extremely delicate and a lot of man-hours were spent on this, and I’m sure on the Chinese side as well. But we had to find venues that were big enough to seat all these cabinet secretaries and their retinues.

We had to try to find spaces that were going to accommodate catering, and side meetings, and side dialogues and all of this. So one of the dialogues I worked on, I remember, we used the atrium of the Reagan building. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there in Washington, D.C. It’s this huge expansive space. And we had to sort of cordon off little rooms and use curtains and other things. But it was a big effort just on the logistics and the State Departments events staff had to really help us a lot with finding spaces, et cetera.

Kaiser: How many people? How many participants from the Chinese side, typically, at an S&ED that happened say, just midway through Obama?

Susan: Oh, I would say probably flying over to the U.S. for S&ED, both in the lead up to the meetings to do the last minute negotiations and then to be their staffing principals, more than a hundred people easily. Probably a couple of hundred people.

Kaiser: Wow. That’s great. I mean, it does give me some flavor of what it was like.

Dan, back to you real quick. The two days in the spring and summer of each year where they were the main event, as you say, we had JCCT that was in the winter as a compliment. But there were other summits, there were other bi and multilateral meetings that ran in the other seasons of the year, if that’s correct. Is this where the main work actually got done or were those just sort of following up on action items that were already kind of decided upon in the main meetings? Where was the rubber hitting the road, typically?

Dan: Yeah, I think this is a really good question. And I think it’s important to remember that the S&ED really did serve as an umbrella of sorts for sub-dialogues and discussions that took place, and even local level cooperation’s at some point. So there was a lot of places in which the rubber could meet the road.

I think the answer is it’s a little bit of both. In a lot of cases, the working level meetings offer the place where the U.S. could set priorities and move things up the chain as they needed at times if they felt stuck. I think the meetings in the summer, the high level meetings, was also a place for the principals to get an attention to these issues and to move the ball forward. That being said, it’s only two days, as Susan mentioned, this is a pretty protocol-intensive effort, and I’ve heard principal’s say that they only had a few minutes to speak during the these processes.

And so I think it was difficult to move a considerable amount of work through these meetings. But at the same time, it offered a really important point of contact to get attention from senior-level Chinese officials. So that in the next round of the working-level meetings, they could set directives for their working level. And so we grossly oversimplify things. I sort of see it as a loop in which the working levels allow the U.S. side to move things up from the bottom-up. And once they met at the sort of high-level discussions, it allowed the Chinese things to move it back down. And then the next round of working level talks were a little bit more productive. And again, that’s over oversimplifying things a little bit, but just to give you some flavor of the sort of methods of working there.

Kaiser: Thanks Dan. So Rorry, there’s a lot of criticism of S&ED. If we had to characterize what the conventional skeptical line on S&ED is, what do those people who later soured on engagement have to say about S&ED?

Rorry: I think there are four main criticisms or buckets of criticism, and I’ll briefly break them down and we can talk a little bit more about whether or not we found them to be accurate criticisms according to the data that we collected. But the first is that it was not a true dialogue. So, as Dan was just alluding to, that there’s a sense that nothing could be decided in the room. Particularly that on the Chinese side, given the top-down nature of the Chinese system, that there was no room for negotiators to come up with creative solutions, or to work in the same way that U.S. and our locators could to advance in the room, an issue to the next stage of progress. So it was not a true dialogue. It was unproductive. Oftentimes it’s called a talk shop where nothing got done and that the Chinese leadership was not empowered. That’s kind of one bucket of criticism.

Another bucket, which we’ve also talked a little bit about already, is that it was too broad, and that it lumped in too many topics, that it treated each topic as equal value, and that therefore it was not strategic. So the first two criticisms are that it was not strategic and it was not a dialogue. And therefore, a Strategic and Economic Dialogue was a very poor choice of a name for this process.

The third criticism is that it wasn’t necessary. This is a criticism, I think mostly from the U.S. side. But the criticism says that the Chinese were only committed to, in the S&ED, doing what they were already going to do, and that the process itself was superfluous to any progress that was made on the bilateral agenda. A corollary criticism, I guess, would be that the Chinese would commit to doing something and then not follow through on their commitments. That one we can actually use our data to point to and say, we don’t think that this is a pattern of behavior that you can use to criticize the entire dialogue.

And then finally, the last criticism is not so much a criticism of the S&ED process in and of itself, but a criticism of engagement with China writ large. And that criticism says that, any cooperation with China helped the U.S. create its own Frankenstein’s monster. That the U.S. willingly developed Chinese power, that it willingly endorsed China systems or values that run contrary to the U.S. perception of its own values without an understanding that China power and its growing power was a grave threat, or even an existential threat to the United States. And therefore, the process itself was flawed from the beginning because the outcome of it was to strengthen China to the detriment of the United States.

Kaiser: Sure. But as you say, this is more of an overarching critique of engagement rather than specifically about the S&ED. Susan, I want to try to get an idea of what each side actually expected. What did it anticipate getting out of S&ED? One thing that the authors wrote about in this report was how China did not tend to push for specific changes in American laws, regulations, whereas Americans often focused on making quite specific changes to Chinese regulations. From your perspective, from all your years negotiating with the Chinese, what cuts for this difference in approach? I mean, is it just the power differential? Is it that China didn’t ask for regulatory or policy changes because it felt like it couldn’t, or is this a reflection of maybe more fundamental differences in the approach to diplomacy? What accounts for this disparity?

Susan: Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. I think it depends on which areas we’re talking about, but the idea that we’re going to be pushing for Chinese regulatory changes or even establishment of regulations in certain areas, usually it fell into either the economic and trade and investment area. So the SED or the JCCT realm, or of course there was a lot of discussion about climate and energy projects and other kinds of specific technical matters that might involve regulatory changes.

I mean, the Chinese system had a lot of open regulatory spaces, and I think part of the dialogue and the idea was to try to close those spaces, to try to get regulations on the books that would then be implemented by China in areas where we thought China’s activity in that sphere was going to have the impact on the U.S. or on the broader global picture in that area. And I think conservation and environment, of course, climate change, certainly fits into that space.

But I think the other thing is that we just have two very different systems and the way that the U.S. government works is we have a law or a regulation, and that covers a certain activity. And if there’s a space that is not covered by law or regulation, then it’s permitted. Whereas in the Chinese case they governed more by campaigns and it’s not exactly the case that everything that is not forbidden is permitted as we know.

So there is a real difference in the way that things get sort of regulated and carried out in terms of rules that people can follow. And certainly in the context of the international system, especially in the international economic system, but also increasingly environmental issues and other things, the U.S. was very interested in having these open spaces in China be closed and be clearer about what activities and what behaviors would be expected and would be allowed going forward.

And I think because in the U.S. we have separation of powers where Congress makes the rules and the legislation, and I think the Chinese have heard frequently enough from U.S. interlocutors about how the separation of powers makes it impossible for us to negotiate what kind of legislation Congress is going to pass at a dialogue like this.

So I think maybe the Chinese had heard that frequently enough that they understood that there wasn’t really in the ambit of reality to think that we could change legislation based on a dialogue that we had with them. But certainly a lot of the discussions we had in the context of S&ED were in the nature of educating both sides about the constraints of the other and making changes on various issues. And I think that was a really valuable part of the dialogue that is often overlooked, and something valuable about engagement that’s often overlooked

Kaiser: That’s right. That comes out in the report. I mean, you talked quite a bit about the contrast between these two bureaucratic systems and how much was learned in that.

Dan, the report also talks about how the meetings tended not to produce concrete, actionable items. I mean, Rorry flicked at that earlier, when she was talking about the critiques of it. Instead, there were these big sweeping statements of principle, but somehow concrete gains could still be made on the Chinese side. And your report talks about how that mechanism works. How did it work? How were the Chinese participants actually helped by these broad sweeping statements of principle? How were they able then to take that home and get something done?

Dan: Yeah. And just to clarify, too, I think it’s important to note that there was a good combination of, of commitments that were both broad and sweeping in nature. And there were a lot of commitments that were really specific in nature too. And just off the top of my head, I can think of OTC derivatives in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis were a really critical part of that crisis. And there were a good number of very specific commitments that were made and followed through on that.

Just another example quickly is steel capacity production. At the end of the S&ED, I think it offered some really specific outcomes and commitments as well. That being said, I think what you’re getting at here is that there were a good portion of outcomes that were sort of broad sweeping in nature and seem to reflect, I think, a lack of progress at the working level. And I think that when they included commitments and outcomes that were broad statements, what that was, was a moment in which the high level Chinese officials could then take that, identify their own priorities within that and hand down mandates to working level officials. And again, as I had alluded to earlier, that allows the working level of discussions for the next round of working discussions to move a little bit further in the future.

Kaiser: Right. Excellent. Rorry, just now Susan was talking about how the kind of interaction between these two very different bureaucratic systems was in itself really beneficial. Your report talks about quite a number of gains that were made in important areas where the U.S. actually benefited from not specifics, but by the process of dialogue itself. What did you mean by that? I thought that was a really interesting assertion.

Rorry: There are several issues that came up in the S&ED that were points of friction between the U.S. and China for some time, and will probably remain points of friction between the U.S. and China for some time to come. And particularly in those instances, there was a value in having dialogue to clarify misperceptions and misunderstandings. This was even true in areas where we were expecting, where the U.S. was expecting more substantive progress, such as finding ways to increase air traffic between the two countries. The assumptions that the U.S. side made going into those negotiations about what was holding up progress on the Chinese side were revealed through dialogue to be not the same as what the Chinese side perceived as their own obstacles in achieving progress, particularly on that and other technical issues.

And this is not to say that the U.S. side then said, well, all of the Chinese concerns are legitimate, and we should just drop this issue. There was no sense I think from my perspective that U.S. officials were excusing lack of progress on any particular issue due to a better understanding through dialogue of what the Chinese barriers to progress were. But in hearing each other and listening to each other, they were able to form relationships that allowed them to reality test how significant those barriers were and to come up with creative solutions.

Rorry: So one area that I think is really significant that the U.S. gained a lot out of in this process from was the relationship building. And that carried over into issues that were outside the scope of the S&ED. So when crises occurred, when issues that could not be planned for jumped up on the bilateral agenda, the U.S. officials had this network of working level relationships. And they said, “Oh, I know who’s the right person to talk to you about this. I know that person, and I know their priorities on X, Y, and Z. So I can talk to them about how we’re going to resolve this ad hoc issue, this crisis issue in the moment.”

Kaiser: I can totally see how that would work. Yeah.

Rorry: Yeah. So relationship building and clarifying misperceptions, I think were two areas where dialogue was particularly effective. And then I think the results of those two benefits of relationship building and of clarifying misperceptions allows us to manage issues on which we are not likely to see progress. So those are some of the less tangible values that we got out of the S&ED process.

Kaiser: Susan you wanted to add something?

Susan: Yeah. I did want to jump in on this because I also want to point out that having a high level dialogue, like the strategic and economic dialogue, which has been clearly and repeatedly endorsed at the highest levels of the Chinese government, has the effect of just opening doors in China on all manner of issues that I think probably you would find it very difficult to get in and have a meeting about otherwise.

And one example in my experience was we had an under secretary at the State Department who was very eager to work on a new conservation area in an ocean in the Antarctic. And we couldn’t figure out why we couldn’t get the Chinese to talk to us about this. They were stonewalling. And we finally got in through, because the S&ED also included things like the Chinese Coast Guard and Chinese military officials. And it turned out the Chinese Coast Guard had some writ of authority over this decision-making and we were able to get in and see that person. And we finally did make progress on this issue through this process, but I don’t think we would have gotten in that door to have that meeting. The person wouldn’t have trusted enough that it was okay to meet with us without this higher level umbrella process.

Kaiser: Yeah. That makes a ton of sense.

I want to move on and talk about the audit itself. Rorry, back to you. Can you talk a little bit about the research design behind it? What kind of methodology you guys employed, and how did you actually assess outcomes?

Rorry: Right. So the S&ED process made it easy to come up with the research design because every meeting contained a fact sheet or a release of the outcomes that were reached at the round of the S&ED. And so we assembled a list of over 900 of these outcomes from the years, 2010 to 2016. And these are all grouped by topics, so addressing bilateral concerns is one topic, climate change and energy is another topic. We split them up on a six person research team, and each took about 150 of them and started to look at whether or not those outcomes contained commitments.

We broke down those commitments and asked whether or not those commitments were measurable. So there are many areas of the S&ED these broad statements of principle. What does it mean to strengthen cooperation in Africa’s Great Lakes region? For example, there are areas where the value or the measurability of the outcome is quite subjective.

Kaiser: Sure.

Rorry: And we just tried to do the best we could to come up with metrics that would speak to whether or not the commitment was fulfilled.

Then we looked using open source research to see whether or not we could find data on those commitments. Could we find Chinese regulations that were made? Could we find agreements that were signed? Could we find data on emission standards or other areas of commitment that we could then cite as progress in the commitment? And for many of them we could. And for some of them we couldn’t. I would like to say at this point that we consider this dataset, which is linked to in the report and which you can access online, to be a living document. There were many areas where we could not find data through open source research on whether or not a commitment was fulfilled.

And there were many areas where we could still be building out this data set. So we encourage people to contribute to it. We hope there are listeners out there that are as interested in the evaluation methods of diplomacy as we are. There might be very few of those people out there, but if you’re out there and you think you have something to say about this conversation, or would like to go through our data set and make suggestions, we welcome that.

Kaiser: Yeah. And there’s contact information in the report. So please do check that out. I think it’s important. I think a lot of our listeners are probably participants and you did interview quite a number of participants in the S&ED along the way. Yeah?

Rorry: We did. And so where we couldn’t find open-source research and particularly to talk about the value of the S&ED that was not tangible, was not covered by commitments, we went back and interviewed mostly working level officials who had worked on the S&ED from a variety of cabinet departments. We talked to people from State. We talked to people from Treasury. We talked to people from the department of energy, from the department of Homeland Security and from other agencies. So we tried to fill in the gaps of what the data couldn’t say or tell us by asking people who worked on it, how they assess the value. And the two methods combined, the interviews and the data set, ultimately brought us to reaching the conclusions that we reached in the report.

Kaiser: Mm-hmm. So, Dan, when I asked Rorry to talk about some of the critiques that are prevalent about the S&ED process, one of them was that a lot of these things China would have done anyway, they would have walked down that same path irrespective of the dialogue or the negotiations. So, how are you able to tell when the S&ED process actually had an effect on outcomes?

And there’s another critique that shows up in the report itself. I think it’s related to this, respondents talked about this tendency for State and Treasury to take credit for things that actually did not depend at all on the S&ED process. So how are you able to take into account these two things and assess the contribution of S&ED itself?

Dan: Yeah, so I think the nerd in me really loves this question and my time spent at the other end of Tobacco Road, actually, in some ways inceptioned me for some of this research, because I spent a lot of time looking at how do we monitor and evaluate methods of peace and social justice? And so we did spend a lot of time thinking through, how do we parse things out? But the first thing you’ll learn in any statistics class is that you can never prove causation, right?

Kaiser: Right.

Dan: You can only show correlation. And so even if we were able to run something like a multivariate regression analysis on this, we still would not be able to talk about causation. So we handed in hard a little bit, but I think as researchers looking at monitoring and evaluating this thing, we in some ways have to take the statements that we have, which is essentially our baseline data at face value.

Dan: We’re not in a position to say, this came out of which dialogue, because we only have the baseline data, which is the joint statements. So this is really more of a challenge I think for officials to resist the temptation, to put everything under the same bucket. Keeping it separate, I think is important for monitoring and evaluating. And I think using vocabulary is really important and we need to pay attention to what we identify as an output versus an outcome. In my mind an output is something that comes out of a dialogue and an outcome is something that actually transpires.

That being said, we can say that these commitments are results of the dialogue. Whether it was S&ED or a sub-dialogue, in some ways I think is a little bit irrelevant because of what we set out to see was, does dialogue have an impact, right? And can we measure that? And I think the answer was yes to both of those.

And in regards to the question of “China would have done it anyway, so what does it matter?” I think there’s some important points here that we need to make. And one is, if that’s true, the real value of the S&ED was that the U.S. participated in those changes. And so certainly they helped to shape the outcomes that they wouldn’t have been able to if they weren’t at the table discussing these things. And actually one of the things that we found was that China became more transparent about regulatory changes, and they shared draft laws and things like that. And the U.S. did as well. So it was important to have input from both sides.

The second is that now we have a counterfactual, right?

Kaiser: Right.

Dan: Do we see China moving towards or away from U.S. interests? I think the answer is pretty clear at this point. And so to have an anchor, like the S&ED is incredibly crucial because one way or the other we’d like to participate in those changes. Right?

Kaiser: Absolutely. Now, that’s very important. I think that the counterfactual really speaks volumes here. Let’s dive in now and talk about some of the major accomplishments that the report cites as having come out of the S&ED. And you guys put these in five main buckets, and I think it’s worthwhile to go through each of these. So I’m just going to list them and you guys can decide among yourselves as to who is to address each bucket. Let’s start with macroeconomic stability, which was of course the real urgency in the 2009 and 2010 dialogues taking place in the early crisis. So why don’t we talk about that first?

Dan: Yeah, I can jump in on that.

Kaiser: Sure.

Dan: I think the macroeconomic stability was a really important piece of progress from the S&ED that we found, especially in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Again, just to quickly touch on the SED under Bush, I think it was important to many or a few interviewers, or excuse me, interviewees mentioned that it was absolutely critical to have that communication during the crisis, because it would have been very easy for each side to misinterpret one another. But going a little bit forward and looking at the S&ED and how that contributed to macroeconomic stability, I think as the dust started to settle, I think they started to look inward, how does the Chinese and the U.S. domestic economies really impact the global economic situation?

So we had a few different outcomes that came, that I think are worth noting. One thing that China committed to was to increase domestic consumption, and it did so by about six percentage points, which in my mind is pretty significant.

The U.S. for its part committed to increasing national and private savings. And it sought long term fiscal sustainability through things like healthcare reform, which was important. Just to give you a quick flavor of what the other things that China looked at, and I have a list here that I can just quickly read off, China committed to increase household income, promoting job creation, accelerating development of the service sector, speeding up reform of monopolies, increasing access to financing for small and medium enterprises, expanding things like rural pension programs, things like that.

And I think one thing that I’ll just quickly note, I’ll pull from that list is the speeding up of reform of monopolies. In the S&ED China committed to a building off of its 2008 anti-monopoly law. And throughout the S&ED, we did see quite a bit of progress there. And interestingly enough, I think it came to a head in 2019. So three years after the S&ED, when China established a new regulatory agency that had a lot more enforcement power than previous agents-

Kaiser: SAMR.

Dan: That’s right. Exactly. Yeah. And so we do see momentum carrying forward, even after the S&ED on a lot of these issues.

Kaiser: Absolutely. Susan, maybe you can talk about intellectual property rights protection. That was another one of the buckets that you listed. This is something that is often cited as one of the failures of engagement, China supposedly continued to steal American intellectual property as the Trump White House constantly alleged. But you said progress on that front that grew out of S&ED. Yes?

Susan: Yeah. I mean, I think most people, if you talk with the American businesses doing business in China over these last several decades would tell you that China has made tremendous strides on its intellectual property regime, setting up of intellectual property courts, moving to close this very open, obviously regulatory space. When we started this process with China, the criticism of course, would be that it did not move fast enough in this area and that it would close one loophole and then another one would open up. But I think most people who have worked diligently on Chinese intellectual property rights would probably judge the Trump administration’s initial foray in this space, the 301 report, to be a little bit one-sided in its judgments about the fact that the Chinese had done nothing in this space. It was a major focus throughout the S&ED on the economic side also was a major focus of the JCCT that continued in parallel to the S&ED all throughout those years. And of course we would complain and say that not enough was done, but I think you hear people say now that China’s intellectual property regime has made pretty significant strides and is bound to probably continue to do so as China generates its own intellectual property. But a lot of this was at the behest and a lot of hard work was done. There was an intellectual property attaché at the embassy in Beijing, the embassy convened an intellectual property round table led by the ambassador every year. And all of these things were under the umbrella of these efforts under the S&ED.

Kaiser: I actually took part in that one year, when Gary Locke was there on behalf of Baidu. Yeah. So great. Now that I think I fully agree with you that I think anyone who was on the ground there certainly saw progress being made. A lot of it is attributable to the fact that China was generating its own IP and they wanted to protect it from other Chinese companies.

Let’s talk about public health and perhaps maybe focus on the praiseworthy cooperation between China and the U.S. to tackle the crisis in West Africa in 2014, of course, Ebola.

This seems really relevant to today because the conspicuously wretched way the two countries have failed utterly to cooperate in addressing COVID-19 and all the lost opportunities of the Trump years, with all this recrimination now and all these actual laws on the books now to prevent collaboration like in gain of function research, NSF is not allowed to fund anything because of a writer on the innovation and competition act that’s related to work that the Wuhan Institute of Virology does. What, though, was the linkage between S&ED and collaboration on infectious disease during the Obama administration?

Rorry: There were few, and it snowballed over time into what you cite, and what I agree was a pretty significant collaboration on the Ebola crisis in 2014. China and the U.S. had been working on infectious diseases together since the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s, and moving on through the avian flu outbreak a little later on, but the cooperation culminated in a joint effort to address the Ebola crisis in West Africa, with the U.S. contributing a lot of technical expertise to that containment effort and the Chinese giving resources, setting up containment centers. There was a joint collaborative effort to address the Ebola situation on the ground. And in the period leading up to that and afterward, there was also an expansion of U.S. CDC personnel in Beijing, looking at infectious disease cooperation. So at one point I believe there were up to 10 staff members of the U.S. CDC stationed in Beijing and conducting a local staff that was even larger, maybe up to 50 people.

That cooperation and collaboration was essential to laying the groundwork for joint responses to infectious diseases. After the Ebola crisis had ebbed from its crisis point, the U.S. and China continued to talk about ways to collaborate on infectious disease prevention and containment and jointly decided to put resources into establishing an Africa Center for Disease Control and prevention in Africa CDC. And that project, unfortunately, the U.S. pulled out of that project at the beginning of the Trump administration, after it had been agreed to in 2016, but the U.S. pulled out of it over concerns about China’s use of health data of Africans in the project moving forward. The Chinese actually went forward with the Africa CDC and broke ground on it a couple of years ago, and I have no doubt that it has been an essential venue to address the COVID-19 crisis in Africa.

Kaiser: Absolutely.

Rorry: But it’s been done without U.S. participation, unfortunately, due to concerns over what it means to collaborate with China in a data heavy and health informatics space.

Kaiser: I looked at the website, it’s terrific. There’s a lot of initiatives happening, especially around COVID prevention. Yeah, Dan?

Dan: Yeah, I just wanted to add to this point too, a little bit outside of this research, but within the context of AFSC [American Friends Service Committee] sort of day to day work, one of the things that has surfaced in, Track 2 dialogues was the fact that, and a lot of these cooperations, especially in the public health realm. It was sort of inhibited by the Foreign Assistance Act, which had been written in 1961 and actually prohibited certain types of cooperations between the U.S. and China. And it actually prohibits USAID from cooperating with countries that are “part of the global communist conspiracy.” And so this sort of outdated language got in the way of a lot of these cooperative opportunities. And we had heard stories where, the U.S. and China would agree to host trainings in Africa, but the U.S. side would have to force the Chinese officials to leave the room in order to give their trainings for public health measures.

Kaiser: Oh goodness.

Dan: And so, it really points to me in the sense that when we have these dialogues and we search for commitments, it really does take a sort of whole-of-government approach here. And we need more consistency between the executive and congressional branches and really quick, and just a quick anecdote about that is that we actually spoke to one of the authors of the Foreign Assistance Act. And initially they said, “Well, you know, I helped write that act. And, and it seems fine to me.” And we said, “Well, have you seen the language lately?” And he said, “Oh well, that’s pretty outdated. So we do need to think about that.” And so I think that Congress also needs us think about ways in which they can support these dialogues and cooperations going forward.

Kaiser: Well, everything old is new again. And, there is a global communist conspiracy, if you ask a lot of these Ted Cruz types. What have you, Josh Hawley. Two more of these things, climate change is the next major one. Susan, I’d love to hear your take on how we all heard the stories about COP-15 in Copenhagen. And if that was the starting point to that very ugly starting point, getting to Paris seems like quite an accomplishment. How important was S&ED to that process?

Susan: I think that the S&ED was absolutely essential to get from 2009 to 2016. The signing of the Paris Climate Accords and what we did in the S&ED between those two dates between the two cops, was that we basically, set out a whole series of different collaborative arrangements that would help China to make its way toward a vision that it could see for itself on reducing its carbon emissions, basically. So we had projects on carbon capture sequestration. We had cooperation between the two environmental protection agencies on standard, setting, and regulatory interventions, et cetera, et cetera.

And over that sort of building up of these relationships, familiarization really with the actual tools and technologies and mechanisms by which you could actually get there. I think that really did make it possible for the Chinese to make new commitments that would allow them to sign up to Paris in, was it 2016?

Kaiser: Mm-hmm Mm-hmm.

Susan: So I’d love for Rorry to jump in here, because she studied all of these various energy and climate change outcomes. The energy department was also crucially engaged with China on a lot of different issues related to its use of coal, et cetera, which is of course crucial to try to curb at the moment, if we’re going to try to make it to COP-26.

Kaiser: Yeah, Rorry did you want to talk a little bit about the Energy Department’s participation, under Secretary Chu?

Rorry: Sure. Yeah. Maybe I’ll just highlight one or two success stories on climate change and clean energy that crosscut some of the issues that we’ve been talking about. So one is the Clean Energy Research Center and this was a government led research program that was funded half by the U.S. and Chinese government and half by the private sector, including universities, national laboratories, companies to study energy efficiency and energy solutions. And so two things really stand out about this. One is that the Department of Energy was very sensitive to the intellectual property issues that might arise from a public private cooperation on energy technology issues. And they built into the Clean Energy Research Center’s protocols an IP protocol and technology management plans that were later cited in a government accountability report as particularly effective and essential to allowing collaboration. At the same time that companies that were surveyed said that the U.S. government could have done no more to help them protect their intellectual property.

They were still really hesitant to share their sensitive intellectual property for lots of reasons. And it didn’t prevent great research collaboration from going forward. So theClean Energy Research Center from 2011 to 2015 produced 44 significant research results, produced a number of patent applications, and really advanced their agenda in coming to clean energy technology collaboration between the United States and China in very significant ways. And they did it without sacrificing intellectual property rights issues, and the intellectual property rights issues may not have been the big barrier to progress there. So I think that there’s a good argument to make in the climate change, cooperation from the S&ED that the U.S. and China have a lot to gain through joint research activities. And that far from mitigating risks, some of the risks that are commonly cited as barriers to progress may not be so essential.

Kaiser: Yeah, yeah. That kind of collaboration is such a no-brainer to me. It’s just astonishing to me that, that we still encounter so much resistance to it. Let’s turn to that fifth final bucket — in security cooperation. I mean, you guys point to gains, but this might be maybe less intuitive or less well known certainly than the other things like climate and public health cooperation. So what did S&ED bring about in terms of security cooperation between China and the United States?

Rorry: There were a number of sub regional and regional dialogues that the S&ED meant to talk about the two countries priorities in different security issues around the world. And some of them did produce collaborative programs. One area that we cite as a success is that the U.S. and China set up a joint training program for Afghan diplomats. And then later based on the success of that for Afghan health workers. So that was an area I think, in which the, while the two sides are really seen and maybe particularly in the media, seen as having different strategic issues with regard to Afghanistan, there was still a lot to gain by talking to each other about the different priorities that they had and working together on programs that actually benefited the Afghan people. So, that’s one area. Another area that’s cited as a particular area of progress is in South Sudan.

The Chinese have a lot of interest in Sudan, South Sudan, particularly during this period. And Susan can maybe speak to this more, but the U.S. was interested in China playing an active mediation role in the conflict in South Sudan. And China responded to that and played an active mediation role that was seen as a success in that there was a U.S. priority and the Chinese responded and took on more than was expected. There are a couple other places where the U.S. had asks of China in the security realm that the Chinese did respond to on U.S. peacekeeping throughout the S&ED. The U.S. asked China to contribute more to peacekeeping and China eventually did.

Kaiser: Yeah, I wish we had more time to go into all these details, but these five areas are just part of what’s in the body of the report. There’s so much more, I suggest maybe that we just pick a couple of the outcomes that the audit surface that really stood out for you, some from the State list and some from the Treasury list you divided into these two, and I’m really particularly interested in things that might surprise us as listeners where the impact maybe is less obvious, but is actually quite important. Maybe Dan, you want to go first and, and pick a couple of things and it’s just a couple of sentences on each of them in the interest of time, but I think it’s important that we identify some of these.

Dan: Yeah, sure. Just to be brief, I think there are a couple categories of outcomes that really surprised me. And I think it really has to do with transparency and access. And I think, what I was surprised to see was that there was increased access for foreign financial institutions and there was greater data transparency as well. And it may not have gotten to the point where some U.S. stakeholders would like to see, but there was progress and, there were a couple commitments that I think we can point to, especially as I mentioned earlier, OTC derivatives, as well as foreign financial firms being able to offer RMB services and things like that.

Kaiser: Right. Right. I remember when that was announced. Rorry do you have a couple that you want to share?

Rorry: Absolutely. I’ll stick to just two. One is that the U.S. and China cooperated together first in China, and then in third countries to convert highly enriched uranium plants into low enriched non-weapons grade uranium plants, and this is obviously an area that would have massive security implications. I think reducing the amount of weapons grade uranium in the world and doing so collaboratively between the U.S. and China and third country is an obvious benefit to global security.

Kaiser: So they could take that model and then take it to Iran or to North Korea, right?

Rorry: In theory. Yes, absolutely. So far most of the collaboration has been on African nuclear plants. But I think that there is certainly room to expand that if and when the political situation between the U.S. and China allows for that type of collaboration to start again. The second area that I’d mentioned also global security related, and perhaps commercial security related, is avoiding satellite collisions. One of the areas that really jumped out to me is that at the start of the S&ED process, the U.S. was very concerned that the U.S. and Chinese satellites might collide in space and create debris that could fall to Earth or could wipe out or damage commercial satellite operations. And at the beginning of the S&ED, there was no way for the U.S. and China to effectively communicate when they might think that a satellite was about to collide.

So the U.S. had a fax number that they could reach out to. And anyone who’s worked with China for more than 10 years knows what it’s like to be sending faxes to a Chinese fax number and not getting any response at all. But over time through the relationships that developed in the S&ED, they were able to establish a real time email link to work on the issue of satellite collisions. And I think that that, again is a key benefit where you don’t see the benefit in a day to day, but avoiding those types of major accidents is certainly something that the U.S. government and the Chinese government should be working on together.

Susan: Well, can I just bring in one other security related thing that I think is worth raising at this point, because it’s become such a thorny issue in U.S., China relations, which is cyber intrusion, cyber hacking, and one of the things that was a major focus of the S&ED while I was there was law enforcement cooperation, which if you think about it from today’s vantage point, you think might think sounds absolutely fantastical, but, we did have very serious discussions between Chinese and U.S. law enforcement. And when you think about globalization and transnational issues, crime now, and going on into the future is all going to be cross-border. And international law enforcement is going to have to find a way to work together even through different systems. And we worked very hard on this.

We had some breakthrough cases of cooperation between U.S and Chinese law enforcement in the kind of child pornography realm and in a couple of other cyber-crime-type cases, which all laid the groundwork. When things got very tense toward the end of the Obama administration on all of the different hacking issues. We had the OPM hack, for example. We were able to have delegation of Chinese come over. They had worked with their counterparts in Homeland Security in the FBI over years. And we were able to get this cyber agreement that established the principle that state sponsored cyber hacking for commercial gain. In other words, the government sponsoring hackers to steal corporate secrets and then transfer them to Chinese companies for the sake of competing back against those entities was not something that should be done, not something that should be allowed.

And people kind of chastised this agreement today and say, “Oh, you know, it didn’t do anything. Of course, they agreed to this principle, but they never observed it.” That’s not a exactly true. And we did see the kind of commercial intrusions from China drop off significantly after this agreement was signed. It wasn’t at the S&ED, but the relationships made through the S&ED are what made it possible to get that agreement and to sort of establish a principle that we still to this day, China has not renounced that principle. They’ve just not observed it in the breach of course, but I think it’s still very important and this is going to be an important area going forward, obviously.

Kaiser: So with the rest of the time that we have, I want to turn to recommendations that you folks come away with, from the audit. So Susan, making some allowance for the political exigencies at the moment where really any full-throated revival of engagement is going to be just a tad difficult. What would you say if you could sit down today with President Biden and Secretary Blinken and Secretary Yellen and wanted to make the case again for the S&ED having give them the report, have them flip through it and tell them what?

Susan: Yeah. I would make a case not so much for the revival of engagement for, but for the revival of diplomacy with China and that’s really how I see the S&ED. It’s a process by which we do both communication and try to get progress toward common objectives. The communication in my view, which is one of the things that cabinet secretaries complained about is just as important as the efforts to negotiate and get outcomes in progress, because of the various factors that Dan and Rorry have both mentioned the different nature of the systems. One top-down, one bottom-up the different ways in which our legal systems operate, the different stages of development that we are at, and still are at, I would say in many areas. And so you’ve really got to have these established channels of communication. People who know who their counterpart is on the other end of the line and what they’re responsible for, because it’s probably not going to line up exactly with what you are responsible for, et cetera, et cetera.

So, in the era of globalization, which I maintain, we’re still in, and we’re not going back from, China is going to figure in every single major issue that I, as a cabinet secretary, am trying to get done. And so, I’ve got to know who that person is. I’ve got to have people around who can understand how I can interact with that person on a productive level and try to both head-off things that are bad that I want to avoid have having happen, and to try to get progress on things that I know we have a common interest in, and I maintain in the face of much scorn and derision that the common interest between the U.S. and China today, and going forward into the future, still far overwhelm the areas of conflicting interests.

Kaiser: Yeah. That’s absolutely right. So Rorry, in your mind, how would a new S&ED differ in form work to be reintroduced from the old one? What would you change?

Rorry: I think that there are a couple of ways that the S&ED could be improved from a monitoring and evaluation standpoint. And this is really to speak to how to better communicate the value of some of the communication processes that Susan just advocated for. So, one aspect of the S&ED that was particularly difficult to grapple with in terms of the evaluation of its value is that all of the outcomes were presented at equal weight. And we think that presenting outcomes based on what kind of outcome they were, would better match the expectations of their value and their progress. So, as we went through the S&ED, we noticed that, some outcomes were statements of principle, some were new projects announced, and we think organizing them by those subtopics or subcategories would be useful because you don’t expect the same type of progress from the statement of principle as you do from a new project that’s announced or an agreement that’s signed. So breaking down some of the commitments might better communicate value.

Additionally, there has to be a way to sunset dialogues that are not productive and that came up in almost every single qualitative interview that we did. Many of the people working on the S&ED felt that some dialogues had outlived their usefulness or their initial logic and that there needed to be a regular review of what is in the S&ED and why. And that would probably lead over time to a narrowing of the scope.

As we alluded to I think earlier in the discussion, some of these issues had been talked about outside the S&ED for some time. Some even continued some of the projects and topics of discussion continued even through the breakdown of government-to-government communications over the last five years. So getting closer to what needs the S&ED process, what needs the Treasury or State Departments buy-in and weight and expertise to move forward would also streamline things. And then finally, I’d say that making sure that there is a complex and ongoing relationship mapping project within any process of diplomacy between the U.S. and China would also be super helpful to bridging some of these systems differences.

As Susan said, we’re not a one-to-one match in systems and it is helpful in the art of diplomacy and it is an art, I think, and not a science to know who you’re talking with and what their areas of responsibility are and whether or not that overlaps with another person in your own government who’s talking to them about another issue. So those are some of the modifications we would suggest, but I think, overall, we advocate for a return to a process.

Kaiser: Very good. Dan, there were some that were not productive, as Rorry said, that are good candidates for being sunsetted. What are the lessons that we can learn from some of those areas where S&ED didn’t bear a whole ton of fruit?

Dan: I think this is an important question and one that we should be upfront about too. The S&ED did not make progress on every bit of issues, but I think that there’s a couple of things we can glean from this. One that comes to mind is a need to prioritize issues. One of our interviewees mentioned that if the U.S. prioritizes everything, it prioritizes nothing. And in some ways, that was the approach. And so when we look at this, we want to ask ourselves, “Is it a failure of dialogue or is it a failure of approach?” And I think that that’s an important item to meditate on if we think through what a hypothetical dialogue might look like in the future.

The other one that we’ve been alluding to here is the need to set expectations. I think Americans are used to a fast-food nature. We want our meal now, but in a lot of ways, the dialogue process is set up for the long term, right? And we need to have a long-term view on a lot of these things. Some of these outcomes didn’t bear fruit until years later, and in some cases, decades later. And so if we have that view, I think it might help us understand where the real value of these dialogues lie.

I’ll also mention that I think this research really is a data point on a larger discussion about how the U.S. conducts foreign policy abroad. I think that it’s important to know that these dialogues are shown to have moved a lot of U.S. interests forward. I suppose I would challenge the critics to show how a militarized approach would improve intellectual property rights in China, for example. So we do need to take a step back, I think, and ask ourselves, “If this is our tool, how do we approach it? What do we need to prioritize? And what is our view of when we need to see real outcomes from it?”

Kaiser: Susan, none of this though, I mean even if we were able to summon the political courage to restart something like this, it wouldn’t matter if Beijing weren’t open to it. So in your opinion, would Beijing still be open to reviving something like S&ED or has that ship already sailed? Is there no longer enough good faith to even attempt something like this? Is Beijing so convinced by now of American bad faith, so convinced it irrespective of who holds the White House or what party is in power in the Senate or in the House, America is determined just to see China on its knees?

Susan: Well, I don’t think that Beijing would ever completely shut the door. I think leaders in Beijing know that the U.S.-China relationship is still crucially important to China’s future development, both on the upside and also potentially in the downside. If they can’t manage the relationship, it’s going to present all kinds of problems that they’d rather not have to grapple with in the midst of other challenges they see coming. So I think they would like to see an expansion of communication and dialogue with the United States. They’ve heard, I think over the years, how the U.S. puts primacy on results-oriented dialogues that are not the kind of dialogue that the Chinese would prefer. They prefer to have a strategic dialogue about long-term goals and they’ll have their staffs fill in the details. And this is part of the frustration, of course, but they would certainly like to have more communication interaction with the U.S..

I don’t think it would be exactly the same as the S&ED though because I mentioned earlier that there are these different dynamics and one of the dynamics of the S&ED was this kind of, we had a very regulated and developed economic and environmental protection, etcetera, sphere and China’s regulatory sphere was much more open at that time. In the meantime, the Chinese have closed a lot of that regulatory space and they don’t see themselves anymore as the … They talk all the time about U.S. being the largest developed country, China being the largest developing country, but they don’t really, I don’t think anymore see themselves so much as a student of the American tutor in the way that it evolved in the S&ED and then at the beginning of the S&ED.

So I think that some aspects would have to change, but I do think that on these transnational issues that are going to become such a formidable challenge to all countries in local in the world, not just the U.S. and China, that there’s a lot of space there for cooperation. What I would anticipate is that sort of the bilateral U.S.-China has, I think, declined to some extent in importance in addressing these kinds of issues. I think both the U.S. and China have lost some degree of credibility and global leadership over the past few years. And I think the bilateral discussions that we could have might spark some ideas, but those would probably be taken to multilateral-type meetings.

And so you’d have a S&ED-type mechanism that would set the stage for discussion of these kinds of transnational issues at multilateral meetings or plural lateral meetings, not at a bilateral summit at the end of the year, for example. And I think, of course, when Obama came into office, there was a lot of talk of a G2 where the U.S. and China would assume joint leadership on the global stage and work together to solve various problems. That was quickly thrown to the side, but I think we now see in the current state of affairs in the globe, after having come through the Trump administration now into the Biden administration, that the G2 is not really going to be something that is going to materialize realistically in the near future.

And so it will be more in the spirit of working together, but then we also have to work with other major countries to bring about these kinds of solutions to transnational problems. And the biggest one facing us right now is the pandemic, of course, and right on the heels of that, if we ever get through this, is going to be climate change. And we’re just not going to be able to not have conversations with China about these things. So I think the sooner we bow to reality and figure out how to establish some clear lines of communication that don’t have to be severed every time we’re offended by something one or the other does, the better off we’re all going to be.

Kaiser: I don’t even know what to say. I agree with you so completely on this. So it’s a perfect place to wrap up. I want to thank all of you, Rorry, Dan and Susan, especially for taking the time out of your very, very busy lives to join me for this conversation. Congrats on the report, which I will put a link too online obviously. And I think you should all download it and make sure to read the audit. It’s fascinating and there are so many things that I picked up on, especially in that last section where you go through all of the different things from and look at the audit data itself. It’s fascinating.

So let’s move on now to recommendations, but first I want to just quickly remind everybody that the Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina. And the thing that we ask you all to do is if you can spare a couple of bucks a month, sign up for SupChina Access, our daily email newsletter because it’s just a fantastic read. It’s very valuable. It is a roundup of all the news you really need to read on China every weekday and it’s delivered right to your inbox and it’s highly affordable and you’re helping us out more importantly. So one-stop shop for all the vital news on China. If you’re interested in group subscriptions, please contact us. You can write to alex@supchina.com. We’ve got some very generous group subscriptions available for NGOs, for universities, for companies even.

Kaiser: All right, let’s move on to recommendations. And why don’t we have Rorry kick us off, whatcha got for us?

Rorry: All right, let me have two recommendations. One is a TV show, The Good Place. I love the show so much. It is about how to be a person in the world and it’s about how to be a kind person in a complex world and it’s also funny and it stars Ted Danson. So if you have not seen that, you have so much fun ahead of you. Go check it out. It’s a Mike Schur show who did The Office and Parks and Rec and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Guarantee you will be amused and also learn something about philosophy.

Kaiser: It’s great.

Rorry: It checks a lot of boxes for me. And then on the same topic, how do you be a good person in a complex world, I’d like to recommend another podcast, The Tara Brach Show. Tara Brach is a fantastic, very accessible meditation teacher and Buddhist practitioner. And she does a show every week about how do we deal with the pressure of modern life. And I find it to be a really, really excellent resource for self-reflection and for making sense of how we react in a busy over-paced world.

Kaiser: I have not heard Tara Brach, but I certainly am a fan of The Good Place and have recommended it on the show before. I love how it’s a crash course in moral philosophy too and that’s this sort of leitmotif through the whole thing. They actually talk about — by the end of it, you have a pretty good idea of the major moral philosophers and their programs. So it’s good. And like how they sneak that education on in there. Excellent. Dan, what’d you have for us?

Dan: Yeah, I think I have two recommendations and on the heels of Rorry’s recommendations. One of the books I’m reading right now is Thich Nhat Hanh’s Silence. And I think it’s an incredibly important book about how we quiet our minds from the worries and anxieties of everyday life. And certainly as an advocate and somebody who deals with the nonstop motion of Congress and government, it’s something that’s been incredibly helpful for me. And also I’ll mention that this study that came out that shows that the younger generation is almost crippled by anxiety from climate change, the idea that we need to instill within ourselves some mental clarity and a little bit of control over our thoughts is incredibly important. So I really recommend it. It’s a very quick read and it’s a very light read as well.

And I also recommend really quick too just the note of our research. One of the things that I came across while we were researching was The China Hustle. And I think it’s on Hulu or possibly Netflix, I can’t remember off the top of my head, but it’s an incredibly important documentary about how a lot of the things behind the scenes in terms of our financial systems and how they work. So I would really recommend it to your listeners.

Kaiser: Yeah, yeah. Thanks, Dan. Those are excellent recommendations. And Susan, what do you have for us?

Susan: Oh, gosh, Kaiser. I can’t remember what I’ve recommended on the show before, but I’ve got a TV show on Nat Geo or Disney+ called The Incredible Dr. Pol. As you know, I live on a large farm in Maine and we have a lot of animals on our farm. And Dr. Pol is this hysterical, real character Hungarian veterinarian who does small and large animal veterinary work. And this is a reality show that basically shows the nitty gritty of running a veterinary operation. And I have saved so much money on my vet bills here on the farm by watching the show and how he brings calves into the world and …

Kaiser: Wow.

Susan: … treats dogs and cats and chickens and all kinds of strange animals. And plus, it’s a lot of color and culture about rural Michigan, which I very much appreciate, and I think your listeners would also appreciate. Really just heartwarming kind of show, good for the kids, etcetera. I love it.

Another recommendation, I hate to recommend another podcast because Sinica is really the only true podcast, but …

Kaiser: I do it all the time.

Susan: … I do love the Hidden Forces Podcast with Demetri Kofinas. I don’t know if that’s been recommended on your show before, but it’s … I don’t agree with Demetri on everything, but the people he gets on are great. And these topics on everything from philosophy to religion to financial markets, investing, macroeconomics, foreign policy. The sweep of the show is breathtaking. He prepares like you do before every podcast and it’s just tremendous education and I really enjoy the interactions that he has with his guests.

And then I just want to recommend one book. It’s probably been recommended on your show before, I don’t know, but in honor of dear departed friend, Ezra Vogel, at Harvard who we all dearly miss, I am reading his book, China and Japan: Facing History, it came out in 2019. And we all say that the U.S.-China relationship is the most consequential, but actually when I sit down and think about it, I think the China-Japan relationship is, if not, the most consequential, almost. And this is just a fascinating and really easy to read and fun trek through the last 2,000 years of China-Japan interactions and all the things that go wrong and etcetera, etcetera and some of the things that go right but mostly go wrong. And it’s just very instructive and I’m really enjoying it.

Kaiser: I can’t believe I haven’t read that yet. I’m going to buy it right now. That’s absolutely … May he rest in peace. He was truly one of the greats, truly one of the greatest.

Susan: One of the greatest people. Speaking of how to be a good human, there you go.

Kaiser: Exactly. All right. I’ve got a couple of recommendations for myself. One of them Evan Osnos’ new book, Wildland, which I just started last night. He reads it himself. He’s a very, very good reader on audiobook. And I ended up staying up absurdly late listening to this. I shouldn’t have done that. That’s why I’ve got these terrible dark circles under my eyes, but I knew I had to get up early. But fortunately, it’s Yom Kippur, the kids have the day off from school, so I didn’t have to get up and make them breakfast, but it was great. I’m only a couple of chapters in, but it’s already just a gripping, gripping read. Fantastic. So I highly recommend that.

Again, the name of the book is Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury. And what Evan does is he goes through these places where — he grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He worked in West Virginia and then in Chicago. So he talks to people from all walks of life there and tries to understand what’s happening in American partisanship. The other, I want to recommend another podcast myself, it’s called The Grand Tamasha. And I know about it because Evan Feigenbaum was interviewed on it. And it’s actually co-produced by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Hindustan times. The host is fantastic. I think of it as the India version of Sinica — call Indica maybe, although the name is taken by a strain of marijuana, but Indica or The Grand Tamasha is extremely good, and the guests are, again … They cover the same current affairs in India. A couple that I’ve listened to recently that I particularly liked, there was one that was written about China-India relations in a broader historical perspective that doesn’t just focus on the McMahon Line and lines of actual control and all that stuff, but it’s much broader. It really looks at the big picture of India-China relations and it was an excellent interview. The author is clearly very, very, very smart. Another one that I listened to was on a Pew poll on religion in India and it goes into real granularity about what the findings of the Pew poll on religion in India. It’s really eye opening and I highly recommend it. So people who are looking for the India version of Sinica, that’s the one, Grand Tamasha.

I want to thank you guys again. Susan, it’s so great to have you on the show again. Dan, welcome and I hope to have you back on the show again. Continue the great work. And Rorry, of course, congrats on … Was this baby number three for you?

Rorry: Two. Two, thankfully.

Kaiser: All right.

Susan: We have a two-child policy at least in CAFP. I’m grandfathered in.

Rorry: Two-child policy at my household. This is enough.

Kaiser: We wanted three. We stopped at two, but all right, so thank you all very much and I hope to see you all again soon.

The Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina and is a proud part of the Sinica Network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. We would be delighted if you would drop us an email at sinica@supchina.com or just give us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts because this really does help people discover the show. Meanwhile, follow us on Twitter or on Facebook at @supchinanews. You should check out all the shows in the Sinica Network. Thank you for listening. We will see you next week. Take care.