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China, U.S. wrap up talks amid growing distrust

June 24, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
This week, high-level delegations from China and the U.S. met in Washington for their annual talks. Evan Osnos of The New Yorker joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the meeting and the tension between the two nations on issues like cyber espionage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to the often tense relationship between the world’s two largest economies.

This week in Washington, high-level delegations from China and the U.S. met for their annual talks, known as the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, aimed at maintaining working relations between the two countries.

Those efforts were strained, however, by tensions over security matters, including Chinese government-sponsored cyber-attacks and theft and that country’s ambitions in the South China Sea. President Obama raised concerns on those fronts with Chinese officials at the White House this afternoon.

Joining me now to discuss what happened is Evan Osnos, author of the book “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China.” He’s also a writer for “The New Yorker” magazine.

Evan Osnos, welcome back to the program.

EVAN OSNOS, The New Yorker: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Remind us, how would you describe U.S.-China relations going into this conversation, and what were expectations?

EVAN OSNOS: This has been a rocky period lately.

The reality is that we’re living through a historic change in the world. China is now rising. It’s playing a greater role in global institutions, whether it’s the IMF or the World Bank. And it is also making its presence known in the Pacific, in East Asia. They’re saying, look, we want to play a larger role in controlling security in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.

And, of course, there are issues around cyber-espionage and cyber-theft. The United States recently suspected, but has not formally blamed China for an enormous breach at the Office of Personnel Management. And all of these issues are right on the table as we try to figure out how are these two countries going to talk to each other.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, did the U.S. go in with expectations? What were they?

EVAN OSNOS: The expectations are that we need to continue to build this relationship in a basic way.

Some of this — oftentimes, you go into these meetings and you say, well, this is going to be a talk show. But it’s important because that’s the architecture of the relationship for the moments you have a crisis. Those are the people who you say, OK, who is going to be on the other end of the line when I call?

They didn’t go into this saying, we’re going to come out of these meetings with important deliverables. We’re not trying to say, we’re going to hold the Chinese feet to the fire on this meeting and get them to say, we will pull back on our cyber-espionage.

What they want them to do — and I think this was a baby step in the right direction — was to get the Chinese to acknowledge, look, we have an issue here. Two huge countries with large growing militaries are trying to figure out what they can do using cyber-technology to expand the — their understanding of each other.

But if we don’t talk about it, then we don’t know what each other’s intentions are and ultimately what they are willing to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, even that, you’re saying the U.S. considers some progress?

EVAN OSNOS: I think they do.

Going into this, part of the goal was to set the table for an important visit this fall. Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, is coming for a state visit in September. And in order for that to be productive, they have to know, what are the issues we want to try to get accomplished?

One of the things that the U.S. is going to try to do this fall is to try to get China to come together with us on one of the big issues in the world, whether it’s cyber-espionage or tensions over territory in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. You remember, last fall, we had an agreement on climate change. That was positive. So now the question is, what’s next?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so where do they go from here? After a meeting like this, does this mean they’re now able to talk, to have regular conversations about what’s going on in the South China Sea, which has China’s neighbors very rattled?

EVAN OSNOS: It — I think this sets the rules of engagement for what are the negotiations in advance of this important summit in the fall.

But if you take, for example, cyber-espionage, this is a case where neither country believes that the other is going to pull back fundamentally from trying to use technology to understand what the other is doing. What the United States wants China to do is to say, look, we recognize there’s a difference between legitimate espionage and the cyber-theft of intellectual property.

And this has been a persistent concern for the United States, that major American companies say, we’re being — we’re constantly being attacked from China. China, so far, has not acknowledged that this is a significant concern. And the United States says, look, you have to realize, this is beginning to affect the overall health of a relationship that neither one of us can afford to deteriorate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, just quickly, Evan Osnos, some area of agreement on economic cooperation and on the environment.

EVAN OSNOS: They did. They came out of this meeting today saying, look, we’re going to work together to help protect the environment, same way we have done it on climate change. We are going to try to promote investment in each other’s countries, but now we also have to begin the hard work of dealing with cyber and dealing with maritime issues in the Pacific.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Evan Osnos, thank you for talking with us.

EVAN OSNOS: My pleasure. Thank you.