Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Treasury Geithner co-authored a Wall Street Journal op-ed today on the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) with China. The op-ed suits the Dialogue perfectly: it seems to be an important piece of work but there’s actually little to it.

The two Secretaries tell us how important China is, how important Sino-American relations are, and how many problems cannot be solved unless the U.S. and PRC work together. This would have been worth noting 10 years ago; not so much now.

The S&ED would also have been quite valuable 10 years ago, when there was far less regular contact between the U.S. and China and less knowledge of the other’s economy and nation. That time has passed. Secretary Geithner was in Beijing last month. Secretary of Commerce Locke and Secretary of Energy Chu were in Beijing two weeks ago. We talk with the Chinese all the time, as we should.

It’s now the time for action, and the op-ed indicates the S&ED will not deliver. Secretaries Clinton and Geithner offer a laundry list of areas for cooperation between the U.S. and PRC, a lack of focus where focus is necessary for progress on what are difficult issues.

Take one of these: mutual efforts toward what the two Secretaries call “balanced and sustainable growth.” There is an obvious opening for horse-trading here. The PRC is worried about our federal budget deficit and what it means for the dollar; we are unhappy with the subsidization of their state sector, which contributes greatly to Chinese overproduction and underconsumption.

To get both sides genuinely moving in the right direction – not just talking about it — would require tough negotiations. The US would need a very specific set of steps we most want China to take and what we are willing to do in return. What the op-ed offers, and what the S&ED will probably offer, are economic clichés.

Mutual rebalancing for long-term global prosperity is the right topic for the S&ED, but if Secretary Clinton has some other priority, that could work, too. The real distinction is between an S&ED which is yet another round of building “trust and relationships” and an S&ED focused and effective enough to make substantial progress on at least one important matter.