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Foreign Policy

Keep the Lines of Communication Open

May 24, 2023
  • An Gang

    Adjunct Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

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On the occasion of the China Development Forum and other events in spring 2023, many scholars and businessmen from the United States took a long-awaited trip to Beijing upon invitation. In addition to attending the forum, they greeted Chinese officials, held dialogues in academic and business circles and visited Shanghai, Guangzhou and other cities. 

Three years of the COVID-19 pandemic virtually cut off face-to-face communication between those in the strategic circles of China and the U.S. Most were only able to communicate virtually, which yielded undesirable results. It is during these three years that China-U.S. relations continued to deteriorate, strategic mutual trust collapsed and substantial strategic changes took place. These undesirable results can be mainly attributed to two factors: First, limited communication channels combined with limited time and time differences rendered candid, in-depth dialogues almost impossible. Second, the lack of a clear endorsement and authorization from the Track I dialogue limited the effectiveness and significance of communications. 

Those U.S. scholars and businessmen who had the chance to visit Beijing again seemed more than excited, not only because it had been a long time but also because they believe that with the growing tensions between the two countries, there is little time left to take steps to prevent further deterioration. 

Bilateral relations should have improved in early spring. Unfortunately, the modest progress Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden made at their meeting in Bali, Indonesia, has all but disappeared, swallowed by the balloon incident, and a meeting between top diplomats of the two countries in Munich, Germany, that did not go well. In the meantime, the Biden administration placed new targeted restrictions on China’s high-tech industries; the U.S. Congress in Washington held a series of China-related hearings; and Speaker Kevin McCarthy of the U.S. House of Representatives met with Taiwan’s leader, Tsai Ing-wen, in California. These incidents combined to plunge China and the U.S. further into a quickly developing spiral of hostility. 

In a manner of speaking, China has taken a wait-and-see attitude toward strategic adjustments from the U.S. and the trajectory of relations in the past few years. Nevertheless, it is now reaching a tipping point in its attitudes toward an unstoppable, final, determined shift. 

Those involved in communications between the two countries have undoubtedly already noticed the ongoing changes, pointing out that China-U.S. relations are increasingly overshadowed by pessimism. Such sentiments as “diplomacy is dead” and “it is hopeless” run rampant, which may lead to the appearance of contradictions and differences between the two countries. 

In fact, before this group of people came to China, there had already been some reflective rhetoric in the U.S. — questions that are not quite mainstream but are fairly influential. They mainly include: Has the Biden administration gone too far in its attempt to suppress China, which runs contrary to the long-term strategic interests of the U.S.? Since neither the U.S. nor China can survive and develop without economic globalization, does decoupling cause as much harm to the U.S. as it does to China? Given the fact that U.S. allies and partners have their own considerations in their policies toward China, can they really work in concert with U.S. strategy?

The “door-to-door communication” by U.S. scholars three years later exemplifies these reflections. Considering full-on strategic competition with China, quite a few do not believe that the U.S. has secured its victory. They admit that the U.S. has never encountered a country like China — with such a powerful system — in the history of its foreign strategy. In the future, the U.S. should count its blessings if it is still able to maintain a globally leading position in some fields. 

The scholars believe it’s not possible, given the economic interdependence of China and the U.S., that the two countries can completely decouple, with the probable exception of the semiconductor industry. They have also noticed that some countries seem to focus on increasing investment in key areas of China’s manufacturing industry. In their opinion, some officials in the U.S. administration and Congress continue to formulate legislation based on political logic, whereas enterprises and individuals with commercial logic can only find their own new position in the changing environment. 

Regarding the Taiwan question, it is acknowledged that China and the U.S. have sunk to their lowest point and risk a direct conflict, which is expected to trigger overwhelming consequences upon its outbreak, thereby leading to the collapse of the global supply chain and damaging economic globalization. 

Some U.S. scholars have called for a re-examination of the common interests between the two countries. They maintain that even in areas of competition, the diplomatic actions taken by China to contain the U.S. may not challenge its interests but in fact serve the interests of the U.S. in some ways — such as the effort to promote reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran for better relations in the Middle East. The Russia-Ukraine conflict is another good case. The U.S. and China have different views on the cause of the war and different solutions to ending it. However, China’s posture is also worth considering for the fact that it provides some room for coordination. 

Scholars call for minimum cooperation between the two countries on common challenges confronting humankind, such as actions to combat climate change and fight crime. Some people suggest that we start in some simple but feasible areas, such as reconstructing air routes between the two countries, to pave the way for better bilateral relations. 

This so-called Track II communication in essence marks a reunion after a long time apart. The people who visited Beijing from the U.S. were not able to bring much substantive information. Obviously, the two countries are unable to engage in in-depth, detailed exchanges in the current atmosphere, and dialogue remains fragmented. However, half a loaf of bread is better than none. Scholars from both sides agree that it is better to have communication and pull everything back on track than to talk about different things across the ocean. 

Some U.S. scholars have also mentioned domestic politics in the U.S. during their chats — for example, the logic behind the behavior of the Democratic and Republican parties with respect to the 2024 general election. Thus, Chinese scholars have developed an in-depth understanding of the political dynamics in the U.S., a new perspective that they would not have developed if they had just sat at home and read the news. It is of great significance for them to be able to make an accurate judgment about the trajectory of U.S. diplomatic behavior. 

There are a great many issues that can and should be addressed by China and the United States. Issues have not decreased but multiplied in the framework of competition and rivalry. One face-to-face exchange cannot satisfy the needs of both sides. Strategically, what are their respective ideas? Is there a huge difference between their judgments and realities? Technically, how should the means and channels of competition between the two countries be regulated to avoid subversive consequences for the peace and development of humankind? Globally, how should the responsibilities of major powers be fulfilled and destructive damage to the efforts of humankind be avoided to meet the common challenges created by the rivalry?

High-quality communication is still an indispensable part of major-country competition even in the post-cooperation era of major country relations. When Beijing reopened its communication lines to the world, an incident in which a Russian fighter collided with a U.S. Reaper drone, forcing it down into the Black Sea, the two countries could still pick up the phone for emergency communication despite their ongoing hostility. 

A key message brought to Beijing by U.S. scholars is that China and the U.S. need to keep communication lines open and set guardrails for competition to prevent catastrophic consequences. Some expressed deep concerns about the “echo chamber effect” in their discussions of U.S. policies toward China — or rather, tough voices echoing between the walls and now arising from the situation room of the White House and the conference rooms of Capitol Hill. There is also the other side of the Pacific. As a result, those who sincerely look to develop a stable China-U.S. relationship are increasingly restrained and reluctant to speak up. 

They have called up on scholars from both countries not to sit idly by but rather to try their best to be a rational voice to enable a soft landing for the increasingly intense China-U.S. relationship. Chinese scholars have heard their voices, but the problem is that there is a serious discrepancy between the deeds of top-level politicians in the U.S. and the discourse conveyed in dialogue with scholars. 

The United States has been continuously challenging China’s interests and red lines on such issues as Taiwan, the integrity of supply chains and reinforced Indo-Pacific alliance mechanisms. It abuses and recklessly imposes sanctions and interventions against President Biden’s “five-nos” — no seeking a new Cold War, no trying to change China’s system, no revitalization of alliances against China, no support for Taiwan independence and no support for two Chinas (one China, one Taiwan). There have also be challenges to Biden’s four “no intentions” of the U.S. — no intention to have a conflict with China, no intention to decouple, no intention to halt China’s economic development and no intention to contain China. These are statements from the Biden-Xi meeting in Bali. 

Yet the Biden administration has continued to substantively damage China-U.S. relations, even as it repeatedly asks China to respond in a restrained and professional manner. If the U.S. does not play down or change its arrogance, China will find it hard to trust the U.S. despite whatever communications take place. As Qin Gang, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister, pointed out, the U.S. in fact wants China not to respond at all, either in words or actions, when slandered or attacked. That is just impossible. 

It seems that the White House is quite anxious about its failure to restart a high-level dialogue with China and should be able to see how to work it out. Will it be motivated to adjust its current, limited perspective and lack of reflection? Well, that is another story.

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