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Foreign Policy

Constructive Talks or Just Hot Air?

Jun 19, 2022
  • Sun Chenghao

    Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

Yang Jiechi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, met with U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Luxembourg on June 13. The two sides had what was characterized as candid, in-depth and constructive dialogue on China-U.S. relations and other issues of common concern.

The meeting’s timing was vitally important. It was among the high-level talks that took place after the video summit between China’s President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden in March and underscored the need to implement the consensus reached by the two presidents. China appreciates the constructive words made by the U.S. side, but the United States must put them into action, as this is the only way to get China-U.S. ties back on track, rather than talk for talk’s sake.

It was the third contact between the two senior Chinese and American officials this year, and all of them occurred after the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. This also demonstrates that both parties believe, in the new international situation, that it is necessary to strengthen exchanges and communication in order to avoid further misunderstandings and risks. They also hope the dialogue will explore more opportunities for cooperation.

There are two aspects of the meeting that deserve special emphasis:

First is the Taiwan question. The U.S. administration has long maintained what many people refer to as “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan, with the primary aim being to maintain the status quo. This is in America’s best interests, it believes. However, in the face of strategic competition against China, the Biden administration is discreetly altering its approach.

The U.S. is currently shifting its policy toward Taiwan in hope of convincing agitators there that the ambiguity is being clarified by concrete actions — actions that are plainly at odds with the agreement struck by China and the U.S. As a result, China has frequently stressed in recent meetings the critical significance of the Taiwan question to China-U.S. relations. It emphasizes that China has no room for compromise on issues involving its core interests.

Second is the relationship between China and the United States in the whole Asia-Pacific region. Last month was “Indo-Pacific Month” for the U.S., as it held a special summit with ASEAN, and President Biden visited South Korea and Japan for the first time in his presidency. The Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy continues to treat China as a rival, whether it’s bringing in ASEAN, South Korea and Japan, or launching the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, all in hope of forming a regional small circle against China.

The statement made by China at the Luxembourg meeting is also a response to the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. Without healthy engagement between China and the United States, a prosperous and peaceful Asia-Pacific cannot be attained. The two countries should respect each other’s regional interests. The U.S. is attempting to transform the region into a battleground in great power competition, a strategy that will only lead to calamity not prosperity.

China and the U.S. have communicated more frequently and maintained high-level contacts since Biden assumed office, indicating that both sides recognize the importance of strengthening their dialogues and exchanges, reducing their misunderstandings and miscalculations and properly managing differences.

The U.S. stance toward China is likewise showing indications of adjustment after multiple rounds of interaction. The three essential terms of U.S. policy toward China have changed from “competition, confrontation and cooperation” to “invest, align and compete” as indicated in U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s address on May 26. The Biden administration will place greater emphasis on the competitive element of its China policy and how to outcompete China, he said.

The three latest terms, however, highlight three challenges in U.S. policy, which may prompt it to make policy changes in the near future. In the face of the pandemic, the supply chain crisis and inflation, “invest” means that it links most of its domestic problems to China. The biggest motive and justification for the Biden administration to boost infrastructure development and facilitate innovative capabilities is to beat China as a competitor.

The risk of linking domestic policy to China policy is high. The worse the domestic situation becomes in the U.S., and the more intense the partisan fight, the less room the Biden administration has for maneuvering its China policy. It has been demonstrated that shaky China-U.S. relations do not inevitably lead to a better domestic situation in the U.S., and the two are not inextricably linked.

Another major challenge the Biden administration has is how to align allies and partners. It is indisputable that U.S. relations with its European and Asia-Pacific allies have improved since Biden’s election, but when talking about building a camp to counter China, it will be more complicated.

Both European and Asia-Pacific countries are wary of falling into the field of great power competition. As the Russia-Ukraine conflict deteriorates into stalemate, some Europeans are reconsidering the role of the U.S. and debating whether the U.S. should continue to lead European security in the future. Further, Europe is most concerned about changes in U.S. domestic politics and the possible political comeback of Donald Trump in 2024. Asia-Pacific countries are even more cautious. The U.S. approach of aggressively shaping China’s strategic environment will also disrupt the stable environment in which the regional countries live.

Crucially, describing China-U.S. relations in terms of competition does not reflect the complete picture of bilateral interactions and is progressively diverging from America’s assumed purpose — preserving its hegemony and interests. Adjusting U.S. policy toward China to better respond to the Russia-Ukraine crisis and economic concerns will be necessary. So competing with China will not help the U.S. handle its domestic and foreign problems. A complex bilateral relationship naturally includes a competitive side, but if it is solely focused on rivalry, the chance to manage the relationship in a more sophisticated manner will be missed.

The crisis between Russia and Ukraine has increased Europeans’ awareness that Russia is a neighbor that they cannot ignore, and that any effective European security framework must include Russia. The U.S. must acknowledge that China is an Asia-Pacific country that is vital to the region. So, without a successful policy of coexisting with China, how can the U.S. accomplish a successful Indo-Pacific strategy?

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