Out of Touch: The US-China Communications Gap
by Mel Gurtov
Among the many troubling trends in US-China relations these days is the lack of high-level diplomatic engagement. Until a few weeks ago, only John Kerry, Biden’s special envoy on climate change, had been able to meet with his Chinese counterpart.
The US defense department is just one agency that had publicly expressed concern about not being able to meet with Chinese officials. This failure to connect could determine whether the two countries fight or negotiate.
The Chinese surely understand this, yet they not only had refused to meet; they had rejected a US proposal to add hotlines for crisis communications, apparently on the argument that the US was not respecting China’s One China principle, so why trust to hotlines to ease matters?
Now things may be changing. At the close of the G7 summit in Hiroshima on May 21, President Biden said US-China relations are going to improve “very shortly.” He is probably referring to the flurry of resumed diplomatic contacts. Here’s the background, and the problems still ahead.
Treasury secretary Janet Yellen, one of several US cabinet secretaries whose visits to China had been on hold since the Chinese spy balloon incident in February, spoke April 20 at Johns Hopkins University; Yellen stressed that the US wants a “constructive relationship” with China. She sought to assure China that economic decoupling is a national security strategy, not an economic strategy directed at China. She also suggested ways for both great powers to work together, such as on debt relief for Developing Countries and climate change.
But the speech still reeked of American self-righteousness. “Even as our targeted actions may have economic impacts, they are motivated solely by our concerns about our security and values.” On trade, the US seeks “healthy competition” with China and supports its economic progress—so long as China “plays by the rules.” The US will continue “engaging with the world to advance our vision for an open, fair, and rules-based global economic order.”
In short, it’s SOP: Play by rules made in the USA, and respect our need to protect national security. Trouble is, the Chinese also claim to act in the name of national security, for example to justify repressing human rights and harassing Taiwan. They can also make their own rules, for example by cutting off trade with the US and others in the West in essential resources, such as rare earth minerals and green energy materials. This interdependency with China seems not to be understood by the China hawks in Congress—or outside.
Yellen defended the administration’s export controls and sanctions that keep advanced technology out of Chinese hands, especially those of the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA). She said the administration “will not compromise” on that.
Unwillingness to compromise, however, takes the US and China back to square one: denial of semiconductor technology and advanced computer chips feeds China’s accusation that the US is using “national security” to constrain China’s development. And that unwillingness to compromise probably has a role in the sudden crackdown on US businesses in China, justified (again) by citing national security concerns.
Yellen’s concluding comments were, nevertheless, welcome: “China and the United States can and need to find a way to live together and share in global prosperity. We can acknowledge our differences, defend our own interests, and compete fairly.” There’s room for both of us, in short. But as the Chinese say, baiwen buru yi jian (seeing is believing).
Ready to Talk
Yellen’s speech was followed on May 2 by a call for dialogue by Nicholas Burns, US ambassador to China: “Our view is we need better channels between the two governments and deeper channels, and we are ready to talk,” Burns said. “We’ve had a decoupling of our societies over the last three years. It’s not healthy. It’s not smart. What we really need is a more broad-based engagement at the Cabinet level, and the United States is ready for that. We have never supported an icing of this relationship,” Burns insisted.
If Washington wanted the Chinese to pick up the phone just then, it might have paid attention to the mixed messages it was sending to Beijing. For one thing, Yellen and Burns were not in sync with other senior US officials, such as the secretary of state and the national security adviser, and most certainly not in sync with Congress and some state governors.
The bipartisan consensus in Congress is foursquare behind economic decoupling and undermining the “strategic ambiguity” that has long underpinned US policy on Taiwan. Republicans, led by Marco Rubio, have been especially active. Some of their bills call for extreme measures against China, such as ending US investment in China, closing China’s consulate in NY, recognizing Taiwan as an independent country, and restricting US technology exports to China that might have military applications.
And there are the antics of two far-right governors: Florida’s Ron DeSantis, who has signed laws to forbid Chinese ownership of agricultural property and prohibit state colleges and universities from accepting funding or forming partnerships with Chinese institutions; and Montana’s Greg Gianforte, who has pushed through a ban on residents’ use of TikTok.
Nevertheless, an upswing in US-China communications was beginning. On May 8 Ambassador Burns met with Qin Gang, foreign minister and former ambassador to the US.
It seemed to be a one-sided meeting, however. Qin blamed the US for the freeze in relations since the balloon incident. He expressed the hope that the US would “deeply reflect” on the importance of the relationship and “return to the right track.”
While China is seeking a way out of the impasse, the US is seeking to contain China, he said. The US “must respect China’s bottom line, its red line, and stop harming Chinese sovereignty, security, and development interests, especially on correctly handling the Taiwan problem.” He urged the ambassador to be the “link and bridge to constructive efforts” in China-US relations.
The Burns-Qin meeting was followed by still others. Burns met with China’s commerce minister, Wang Wentao, on May 11. That same day, the White House announced that national security adviser Jake Sullivan met in Vienna for several hours with Wang Yi, China’s top foreign affairs official.
They “had candid, substantive, and constructive discussions on key issues in the U.S.-China bilateral relationship,” the readout said. A meeting between the US trade representative and minister Wang is scheduled for later in May.
In short, both countries seem to find that a further deterioration in the relationship serves neither’s interest. To judge from the meetings this month, commerce seems to be driving a coming together—roughly $700 billion in bilateral trade and $150 billion in direct investments are on the line.
As is often the case, however, political barriers within China and the US may constrain the areas of agreement. There are America hawks in Beijing just as there are China hawks in Washington.
China is not going to yield suddenly on Taiwan or the South China Sea, and the US is not going to yield on human rights and semiconductor exports. Public opinion in both countries is increasingly nationalistic, which in the US comes to 83 percent of respondents viewing China unfavorably, with 38 percent seeing China as an “enemy.”
There is also the potential for direct conflict, most likely in the Taiwan Strait but also in the contested South China Sea —especially now that the US has formally pledged to back the Philippines if any of its ships takes Chinese fire, an increasingly likely scenario these days.
Even with the best of intentions, Joe Biden and Xi Jinping may have a very hard time finding common ground beyond agreeing to talk more often. Yet they must find common ground at least on the climate crisis, pandemics, and nuclear weapons—the three great issues that threaten both national and international security.