Nation & World

Kerry: U.S. and China have agreed to disagree on key issues

U.S. leaders have accused China of hacking into American companies’ files, bullying U.S. allies in Asia and treating dissidents and ethnic minorities inhumanely. But pay little heed to the appearance of a hostile Sino-U.S. relationship.

That’s the message U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivered Thursday at the conclusion of a two-day meeting between Chinese and U.S. officials in Beijing.

The two countries, Kerry said, “are moving past the differences that have accented the relationship in most recent months.” U.S. delegates and their Chinese counterparts, he said, struck agreements this week on several issues, including cooperation on combating climate change, preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons and reducing the chances of maritime mishaps.

At a news conference, Kerry and U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew noted that the United States still has serious differences with China. But the two sides have apparently agreed to disagree in a way that, according to Kerry, seeks to alter conventional wisdom about interactions between superpowers.

“The U.S. and China are committed to a new model of relations, based on practical cooperation, but also constructive management of differences,” Kerry said. “We recognize the need to avoid falling into the trap of a zero-sum competition, and that recognition is driving our partnership on issues from climate change to wildlife trafficking to Afghanistan to peacefully resolving the Iranian nuclear issue.”

Adding to the courtship of Beijing, Michelle Obama issued a statement Thursday thanking China’s leaders for hosting her earlier this year, along with her daughters and mother.

“By strengthening the bonds between our two nations, you all are playing a critical role in building our relationship for future generations,” she said.

Kerry and Lew were in Beijing for the annual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, a chance for American business and government leaders to interact with their Chinese counterparts on a range of issues. Kerry said the meeting was one of the best of its kind he’d attended, and at Thursday’s news conference, he and Lew glossed over tensions between China and President Barack Obama that many analysts say are growing almost monthly.

The biggest flash point is China’s increasing confrontational stance against Japan, the most important U.S. ally in Asia. China’s president, Xi Jinping, visited South Korea last week in a trip clearly aimed at reminding Korea and the rest of Asia of Japan’s past war atrocities. This week, Chinese state media started publishing lurid “confessions” of Japanese World War II criminals that are sure to whip up emotions at home.

Cyber warfare is another source of conflict. In May, the U.S. Justice Department formally indicted members of the Chinese military on charges of hacking U.S. corporate secrets, part of an alleged scheme to help state-owned enterprises in China. Beijing has angrily rejected the accusations.

On Thursday, The New York Times reported that hackers traced to China had attempted to break into federal databases and gain information on government workers with security clearances. Asked about it Thursday, Kerry said he’d only learned about the alleged breach before arriving in Beijing and didn’t raise it with his Chinese counterparts, partly because it was still under investigation.

Some commentators have accused Kerry and President Obama of being softies against China’s aggressions.

“It is hard to exaggerate the audacity with which China now kicks sand in Uncle Sam’s face,” Eamonn Fingleton wrote in Forbes magazine this week. Fingleton, formerly based in Tokyo and other parts of Asia for Forbes, said the United States was regarded as an “empty suit” in China on “everything from trade barriers to industrial espionage to intellectual property theft.”

Kerry said Thursday that he’d had “frank discussions” with Chinese leaders about cyber security and reported Chinese crackdowns on lawyers, journalists and activists. But the discussions were focused on how the two countries could make progress on other issues, such as easing travel between them.

More than his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, Kerry has made clear that he wants to engage China on issues where its leaders feel relatively comfortable. His lighter touch has rankled some in Congress, especially Rep. Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican who’s seeking to rename the street outside the Chinese embassy in Washington after Liu Xiaobo, the winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize and China’s most famous dissident.

While Kerry may be facing criticism among partisans, there are signs that the White House position is in tune with public opinion.

On Wednesday, the Pew Research Center reported poll results that suggested most Americans, particularly young people, want to build stronger economic ties with China.

Some 51 percent of the 3,337 people whom Pew polled in February said it was important to build a stronger economic relationship with China, while 41 said it was more important to get tougher with China. Previous surveys by Pew suggested higher levels of public support for a hard stance.

Treasury Secretary Lew said this week’s discussions resulted in a Chinese pledge to open its growing financial-services sector to outside companies. Kerry said there were numerous breakthroughs on mutual efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, including a Sino-U.S. pact to help each other reduce emissions from heavy-duty vehicles.

The State Department released information sheets on accomplishments from the two-day dialogue, but they were provided only after Kerry’s news conference, where no one asked about purported breakthroughs on climate change and opening China’s markets to financial services industries, making it difficult to gauge the significance of the summit on these issues and others.