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Foreign Policy

Continued Dialogue Matters, Even in Adversity

Apr 30, 2024
  • Zhang Yun

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

Amid the ongoing challenges in relations between China and the United States, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken undertook his second visit to China in a year. Unfortunately, his visit coincided with developments that strained bilateral relations.

The U.S. Congress passed a foreign aid bill that allocated $2 billion in military financing to support defense-related expenses for Taiwan and other regional partners. A joint statement issued after the trilateral summit between the United States, Japan and the Philippines expressed serious concern about China’s activities in the South China Sea. Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven expressed strong concern about the state of China-Russia relations. And Blinken suggested that China may be “fueling what is the biggest threat to European security since the end of the Cold War.”

These developments bear resemblance to the dynamics in the high-level dialogue between China and the United States in Anchorage three years ago, when Washington tried to engage with China from a position of strength. Before Blinken’s visit to China this time, the U.S. was busy strengthening its alliances and trying to shape international perceptions of China as a threat.

These moves suggest a continuation of the U.S. attempts to engage with China from a position of strength. In light of such negative inputs, is dialogue still necessary for Beijing and Washington? Will they only talk past each other, thereby deepening differences?

I believe it’s important to take a strategic and comprehensive approach to the role of communication, even though China-U.S. relations face frequent challenges. Maintaining dialogue, even in adversity, is not only necessary but also meaningful, because dialogue has audiences at the bilateral, regional and global levels.

First of all, China-U.S. dialogue, even during challenging times, serves to control the potential spread of strategic misperceptions. During his phone call with U.S. President Joe Biden in early April, President Xi Jinping pointed out that strategic understanding is the first button that must be fastened in China-U.S. relations.

Biden has repeatedly stated that he has no intention of starting a new cold war, but Washington’s actions on Taiwan and the South China Sea — as well as its measures rolled out in the name of economic security — represent an increasingly adversarial view of China. This strategic misperception of China has been repeated in the G7, NATO and other multilateral settings, leading to a gradual escalation of negative implications.

In the face of adversity, China has remained committed to dialogue with the United States for the very purpose of breaking this cycle of misunderstanding. To that end, it tries to seek dialogue not only with the United States but also with its allies. This is why the German chancellor and Dutch prime minister visited China recently.

Second, China-U.S. dialogue, even in adversity, can foster security and confidence toward the integration of East Asia, thus resonating positively with a regional audience. The rapid development of East Asia in the past few decades is underpinned by a peaceful regional environment and based on an interdependent economic relationship. When China and the United States remain locked in rivalry, regional divisions may follow. But a new cold war is not in the interest of these countries.

During the Cold War, Southeast Asian countries said no to bloc politics and division and established ASEAN, which is a model for developing countries in terms of strategic independence. In the post-Cold War era, ASEAN-centered multilateral mechanisms — which are designed to seek peace through dialogue and prosperity based on integration and interdependence, as well as to engage with major powers — have proved to be a miracle in current international politics. Today, Asia is witnessing a new wave of regional integration, as evidenced by the rise of RCEP, the upgrading of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area and the resumption of cooperation between China, Japan and South Korea.

China-U.S. dialogue aligns with the aspirations of countries in the region for solidarity and integration, not division and decoupling. For example, ASEAN issued a special statement welcoming the summit between the two powers’ presidents in San Francisco last year.

Third, China’s commitment to dialogue and communication with the United States inspires countries in the Global South. China has advanced three major initiatives — global security, global development and global civilization. Essentially, these initiatives advocate diversity, inclusiveness and democracy in international relations and aim to build a more equitable and fair global governance order.

The prolonged Palestinian issue is a prime example of the absence of fairness and justice in current international relations. The two-state solution outlined by the United Nations and the issue of Palestinian statehood have not been resolved for too long. This chips away at the confidence of a majority of developing countries in a UN-centered governance system.

The persistent Palestinian-Israeli issue has been around for decades, giving the Middle East the most prominent security problems in the world. On principles that affect the future of the whole international community, major countries should take a clear-cut stand to restore international justice. Last year, China succeeded in mediating the normalization of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, driving a wave of reconciliation in the Middle East. In addition, China’s clear stance on the Palestinian issue resonates in the Global South. In addressing international conflicts, the traditional practice of relying purely on like-minded allies for military deterrence and economic pressure will increasingly lose its appeal among global audiences.

Sustaining dialogue between China and the United States — even amid adversity — fosters an enabling environment for the stabilization of bilateral ties. 

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