MARGARET WARNER: Washington drew an unprecedented gathering today of scores of U.S. and Chinese cabinet ministers and their deputies.
Welcoming them at the Ronald Reagan Building, President Obama stressed the importance of this new strategic and economic dialogue between the two countries.
U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We can’t predict with certainty what the future will bring, but we can be certain about the issues that will define our times.
And we also know this: The relationships between the United States and China will shape the 21st century, which makes it as important as any bilateral relationship in the world. That really must underpin our partnership; that is the responsibility that together we bear.
MARGARET WARNER: The president said he had no illusion that the U.S. and China would agree on every issue, but said that made ongoing dialogue all the more important.
China’s state councilor, Dai Bingguo, also acknowledged differences, but said China and the U.S. are partners on many fronts, including dealing with the economic crisis.
DAI BINGGUO, state councilor, China (through translator): We’re actually in the same big boat that has been hit by fierce wind and huge waves. With our interests interconnected, sharing will and woe, and what we can do is to follow the trend of the development of our times, try to cross the stormy water together as passengers of this boat, to seek harmonious coexistence and willing cooperation.
MARGARET WARNER: The U.S.-China dialogue of the Bush years was dominated by economics. This new one, led by Treasury Secretary Geithner and Secretary of State Clinton, covers a wide range of bilateral and global issues.
Kenneth Lieberthal of the Brookings Institution says it was high time to integrate the different issues into one dialogue.
Bilateral Agenda Must Expand
KENNETH LIEBERTHAL, Brookings Institution: Most issues in foreign policy get taken up item by item, each in its own bureaucracy, each with its own bureaucratic leadership. It's very hard to put all of these things together.
This forum gives us the opportunity to really sit back at very high levels and say, where do we want to head from here? We've got an enormously challenging agenda.
MARGARET WARNER: Among the items on the table today: geostrategic challenges like nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran; also front and center, the U.S. effort to draw China, the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, into a major new climate treaty by the end of the year.
The economy still looms large, as well. As the largest foreign holder of U.S. Treasury debt -- some $800 billion worth -- China wants the U.S. to tame its soaring budget deficit. The U.S. wants China to help reduce the yawning trade deficit.
This list of agenda items they're grappling with in the building behind me is clearly a very tall order, yet some human rights activists say, in this push to work more closely with China, the U.S. is giving one crucial issue short shrift.
SOPHIE RICHARDSON, Human Rights Watch: We haven't seen signals thus far to suggest a new, smart, tough approach on China and human rights.
MARGARET WARNER: Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human Right Watch, says the administration should speak up more about abuses in China. She also says the U.S. should weave human rights concerns, like a free press, into talks on other issues, from the environment to product safety.
Consequences Should Be Real
SOPHIE RICHARDSON: To the extent that any of these issues across the board rely on the free exchange of information, the freedom of expression, the ability for people to raise problems with the government, and the need for an independent judicial system -- and that cuts across a lot of different issues in the U.S.-China relationship -- those need to be brought up by all of these different agencies rather than just relegating them to a human rights dialogue, which really the Chinese government just has to sit through once or twice a year and where there are no real consequences.
MARGARET WARNER: Lieberthal says the Obama administration is doing that, but can only do so much.
KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: I think it's hard to find an area, whether it's nonproliferation or clean energy or economic and trade relations or anything else, where we are not pressing that broad agenda.
This is a tightrope. It's a very tough tightrope to walk. My own judgment is I think he is doing about as good a job on this as one could ask for.
MARGARET WARNER: This week's two-day meeting is just the beginning. Six months from now, the two countries will reconvene in Beijing.