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Foreign Policy

Looking for Real Fruit of Talks

Oct 13, 2021
  • Wu Zurong

    Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

After three rounds of high-level talks between China and the United States in Anchorage, Tianjin and Zurich, it seems some progress has been made in Sino-U.S. relations. Now the big concern is whether or not this progress can really help bilateral relations return to a healthy and stable course. Here is some good news:

First, the two sides agreed in principle that presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden will have a virtual meeting before the end of the year.

Second, the United States. has corrected a serious mistake by canceling the extradition from Canada of Meng Wanzhou, an executive of Chinese tech giant Huawei, and she has returned to China safely after 1,028 days of illegal detention. Thus, an irritant in Sino-U.S. relations has been removed.

Third, new developments over the last nine months illustrate that dialogue is better than confrontation. Continued confrontation between the two countries had led both China and the U.S. to worry about veering into conflict, which neither side wants to see. Now both have expressed readiness for more dialogues and exchanges. U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai is set to engage with her counterparts in China. Top officials in the two countries’ militaries also had important conversations recently.

Fourth, microphone diplomacy has given way to private conversations between officials. It seems the two sides have found a way to improve the quality of their communication, and private conversations in Zurich brought better understanding between the two sides than the fiery public encounter in Alaska.

Fifth, the U.S. has begun to realize that total decoupling the two largest economies in the world is unrealistic — though it still lacks understanding of the fact that it is unpopular and harmful to both countries and the world. It is a welcome small step that the U.S. intends to study the advantages of re-coupling in certain areas in trade and economy.

Sixth, it is reported that Biden administration officials have begun to listen to the voices of U.S. businesses and consumers and expressed its intention to remove some of the high tariffs imposed by the Trump administration on Chinese export commodities — though it might take more time. 

Seventh, we have heard the U.S. side’s positive words, such as “no intention to contain China,” “no new cold war with any country” and “not to increase trade tension with China.”

Frankly speaking, however, all the progress made so far remain at the level of perceptual understanding and tactical change. Whether or not they will help produce substantive progress in the future still hinges on the removal of the following obstacles:

First, the Biden administration’s perception of Sino-U.S. relations remains widely different from that of China. For the U.S., responsible and managed competition between the two countries in essence means the U.S. continues its containment of China, while China’s perception of the bilateral relations is based on win-win cooperation, equality and mutual benefit.

Second, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan both said on Oct. 6 in Europe that the U.S. will “continue to support Taiwan’s self-defense, and we will oppose any unilateral actions to change the status quo.” That is to say, the U.S. will continue to interfere in China’s internal affairs and harm China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity with its Taiwan policy.

Third, in the talks in Zurich, according to the information released, the two sides remain far apart on issues related to human rights, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet. How those differences will be handled remains to be seen.

Fourth, the nice words of Biden administration officials still face the test of translation into real action. Judging from what the U.S. has been doing so far, it is fair to believe that the Biden administration is not yet ready to fundamentally change Donald Trump’s anti-China policy.

Former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton once said that “the U.S. and China are in the same boat.” It is true that the Chinese and American people live in the same small village of Earth, sharing the future of mankind. We do have differences of perception, which often originate from different stands and logic. The U.S. side has stuck to a Cold War mentality and zero-sum logic, while the Chinese side persists in the logic of win-win cooperation, as we believe China and the U.S. are in the same boat. It is crystal clear that conversations, whether private or public, will produce better results and more common language when the U.S. has truly discarded its strategies of fierce competition and containment of China. 

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