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Foreign Policy

Balancing High-Level Dialogue

Jan 06, 2021
  • Zhang Yun

    Associate Professor at National Niigata University in Japan, Nonresident Senior Fellow at University of Hong Kong

With the new administration of Joseph R. Biden on the verge of taking office, the question whether China-U.S. relations can turn around has become the focus of world attention. An important visible indicator will be the resumption of high-level dialogue between China and the U.S.

Over the past year, talk between China and the United States has been almost completely stalled. The pandemic is certainly one thing to blame, but it can still be said to be a highly abnormal year in the history of China-U.S. relations. Biden, as vice president in the Obama administration, participated in the China-U.S. strategic and economic dialogue several times and understands the significance of high-level communication quite well.

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently said that any issue between China and the U.S. can be brought to the table, and he proposed that three major lists be created -- dialogue, cooperation and control – which showed a high degree of openness and flexibility in approaching the resumption of dialogue. 

The need to resume high-level dialogue quickly 

Strictly speaking, in 2020 there was only one high-level Sino-U.S. dialogue with high visibility: the closed-door talks between Yang Jiechi, director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the CPC Central Committee, and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. That took place in Hawaii on June 16 and 17. The rapid reopening of high-level dialogue channels after the new U.S. administration takes office will have a significant effect on the development of China-U.S. relations in the coming weeks, months and years.

First, the rapid resumption of high-visibility, high-level dialogue will have a dampening effect on pessimism in China and the United States. As tensions have risen in China-U.S. relations, pessimism has spread in both countries. International relations are largely influenced by perceptions, and once mainstream perceptions are afflicted by the idea that China-U.S. relations are rivalrous and confrontational, the space for cooperative options and dialogue naturally shrinks.

A rapid resumption of high-level dialogue would send a strong political signal to both countries that China and the U.S. are not moving toward full-scale confrontation.

Second, the rapid resumption of high-visibility dialogue would also give a major boost to the international community’s renewed confidence in a stable and cooperative international order. Whether it is fighting the epidemic, boosting the economy or combating climate change, the solution to global problems cannot be achieved without the cooperation of the two largest economies, China and the United States.

Tensions in Sino-U.S. relations have created a sense of disorientation in the international community toward the international order. Restarting Sino-U.S. high-level dialogue quickly will play an important role in orienting international relations toward multilateralism, free trade and globalism in the post-pandemic era. 

Ensuring the quality of high-level dialogue 

The rapid resumption of high-level dialogue between the U.S. and China is a first step, but it does not necessarily mean that relations will necessarily turn around. The fact that any issue can be discussed does not automatically mean that agreement can be reached. There are a number of highly sensitive issues in China-U.S. relations that directly concern core interests and could easily put a newly restarted dialogue in a difficult position. They may even result in a dialogue that further escalates mutual distrust between the two sides. In other words, while addressing the efficiency of dialogue, it is important to ensure quality dialogue.

First, dialogue should not focus on issues that can easily fall reach a dead end. Quality high-level dialogue depends heavily on sustainability, and trust-building is often the result of repeated interactions over multiple rounds rather than one-off deals.

In his memoir, former State Councilor Dai Bingguo wrote about his state of mind before his first strategic dialogue with Japan. He said that if the dialogue had started with Yasukuni Shrine, there would have been endless arguments.

The China-U.S. relationship is more complex and has more sensitive issues than the Sino-Japanese relationship. Both sides have tit-for-tat views on these issues and need to communicate about them. If they focus on these issues at the beginning of their dialogue, disagreements will be intensified. This matter requires tacit understanding and wisdom on both sides.

Second, China and the United States should learn together in the dialogue how to establish a new type of cooperative competition as major powers. For a long time, the United States’ main national security experience has involved dealing with the Soviet Union, the Middle East and terrorism, which is really a simple black-and-white issue. China, however, presents a new challenge for the U.S. The relationship is multifaceted – not intrinsically confrontational but mainly competitive. Using old experience to deal with the China-U.S. relationship is a toolbox mismatch. The key to ensuring high-quality dialogue at a high level is learning to handle cooperative competition.

Third, full attention should be given to the role of third parties in promoting these talks. Sino-U.S. relations are far from being only between China and the United States. They are of great concern to the world as well. Other countries are most concerned about whether the international system will be divided and their living space compressed, so they all support multilateralism and want international organizations to play a greater role in the creation of cooperative mechanisms and establishing norms.

China’s recent signing of the RCEP and its formal statement of willingness to actively consider joining the CPTPP, as well as the recently concluded BIT treaty between China and Europe, have significance in creating a favorable environment for Sino-U.S. dialogue. It shows a commitment to multilateralism.

The resumption of high-level dialogue between China and the U.S. should be characterized by efficiency and come with a strategic determination to ensure high quality. The relationship, which suffered many negative twists and turns, will eventually find its way to a new type of great power relationship characterized by cooperative competition that has never been seen before.

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