Clinton builds relations with China in strategic talks

US-China relations are key to negotiating with North Korea and Iran, and will "shape the 21st centur

There were clear indications this week that America views China as a key strategic partner in negotiating with North Korea and Iran, as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Chinese counterpart Dai Bingguo held high-level discussions in Washington.

President Obama established the tone of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue in his opening address, describing the Sino-American relationship as one that would "shape the 21st century". In line with these expectations, the range of topics covered by delegates was broad. The global economy was predictably high on the agenda, with both countries agreeing to maintain fiscal stimulus provisions until recovery was "secured".

There was a wide-ranging discussion on foreign policy, taking in the Middle-East peace process as well as the situations in North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Precise details of China's position on the approach to be taken in restricting Iran's nuclear programme were not outlined to reporters, although Clinton stated that "China shares our concerns about Iran becoming a nuclear weapons state". On North Korea, the two powers agreed that "further action and cooperation was needed" to bring the state back to the discussion table. Delegates also discussed recent concerns raised in the global media as to whether North Korea was secretly shipping arms to Myanmar, with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Guangya stressing the need for "adequate evidence".

The world's two biggest polluters also progressed discussions on climate change, signing a "memorandum of understanding" to increase cooperation on clean energy, and to encourage progress towards an international treaty on carbon emissions. And following the recent upheavals in Xinjiang province, there was a "candid" discussion about human rights.

The talks were also notable for the more familiar and personal tone struck by representatives from both sides. Clinton mentioned that, whilst discussing with Dai the birth of his grandchild, "I said that perhaps at the beginning of every government dialogue, we should all take out pictures of our children and our grandchildren and put them on the tables in front of us to be reminded of what was at stake in our high-level negotiations".

But this change of tone is particularly apt. According to Orville Schell, head of the Center for U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, a New York-based think-tank, the US is "turning to China almost like a feuding couple might turn to a marriage counsellor for mediation" in respect of its relations with nations such as North Korea, Myanmar, Sudan, Iran, Zimbabwe and Venezuela. Whilst this approach may be productive, given China's better standing in respect of many of these countries, Schell urges some caution.

"It's very hard to say [what actions China may take in future] ...because whatever China does, they'll do it behind the veil," he said.