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U.S., China Face Tensions At 7th Strategic And Economic Dialogue

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

When you have issues to work out, communication is key, and that goes for world powers too. Chinese diplomats, military leaders and economists are in Washington this week for the 7th annual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. This year's meeting comes amid concern in the U.S. about cyber hacking and tensions over the South China Sea. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: In the days leading up to this year's Dialogue, U.S. officials have been trying to highlight the positive aspects of the relationship with China but say they won't gloss over some of the serious issues bubbling up between the two countries. One issue is maritime security. China, in an effort to expand its territorial claims in a disputed area of the South China Sea, raised alarm when it began constructing brand-new islands in the region.

DANIEL RUSSEL: Frankly, we're concerned, and others are concerned.

NORTHAM: That's Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asia, speaking just days before this year's Dialogue began. He made it clear where the U.S. stands on the South China Sea. China had just announced it would stop work on some of the man-made islands but continue building on others, a move Russel calls troubling.

RUSSEL: The simple fact is that neither that statement nor that behavior contributes to reducing tensions, and reducing tensions is what we all should want.

NORTHAM: One encouraging sign is that China agreed to a separate round of talks this week focused on maritime security, says Christopher Johnson, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: I think the question will be whether they're here to tell us about, you know, their sovereignty and so on - in other words, to adopt a very inflexible position - or whether there's some room for dialogue.

NORTHAM: The U.S. delegation will also have to wait and hear what China has to say about the recent discovery of a massive, sophisticated cyber hack into the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, siphoning off information about 14 million employees and contractors. The Obama administration believes China was behind it. Johnson says cyber security will feature prominently at this week's talks.

JOHNSON: This whole issue of building evidence, if you will, of the Chinese exploiting big data to be able to build databases on U.S. federal government employees, so this issue is a very big one and one that's not likely to be resolved by these talks.

NORTHAM: Human rights, trade and limits on American investment in China are also on the agenda. All in all, some 90 separate dialogues will take place between the Chinese and U.S. officials, says Douglas Paal, an Asia specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

DOUGLAS PAAL: One of the things that you won't see in this session but is very much on the minds of the political figures involved is teeing up a summit visit by China's president to the United States in September.

NORTHAM: Paal says the Chinese delegation wants the visit of Xi Jinping to go smoothly and will try to lower the temperature this week on a lot of the contentious issues and help pave the way for some big announcement. Paal says it's similar to what happened at the last Dialogue in Beijing.

PAAL: This happened last year in the summer, preparing for when President Obama went to China in November. And they came up with a rather grand joint announcement on climate change and global warming. And I think you'll be seeing more efforts - less properly visible now, but they'll turn up in September when Xi Jinping shows up in Washington.

NORTHAM: Paal says it all depends on how the talks go this week in Washington. Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.
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