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Foreign Policy

Still Talking Past Each Other

Jul 12, 2022
  • David Shambaugh

    Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian Studies and Director of the China Policy Program, George Washington University

The most recent good news in the strained and dysfunctional U.S.-China relationship (where there is hardly any good news) is that the two foreign ministers (Secretary of State Antony Blinken and State Councilor/Foreign Minister Wang Yi) engaged in five hours of intensive and extensive dialogue on the island of Bali in Indonesia. Simply to hold such lengthy discussions at this high diplomatic level is positive. 

The bad (but predictable) news is that while the two talked with each other, a careful reading of the post-summit descriptions put out by each side indicates that the Biden and Xi Jinping administrations continue to talk past each other. That is, each side delivered predictable positions in a ritualistic manner. In the post-meeting official read-outs (Blinken gave a press conference while Xinhua News Agency provided an official statement) each side reiterated their mutual lists of grievances against the other. 

The Chinese side was particularly formulaic:

Wang Yi emphasized that since the United States has promised that it does not seek to change China’s system, it should respect the Chinese people’s choice of socialism with Chinese characteristics and should stop smearing and attacking China’s political system and domestic and foreign policies. Since the United States has promised not to seek a new Cold War with China, it should abandon the Cold War mentality, refrain from zero-sum game, and stop forming exclusive groupings. Since the United States has promised not to support “Taiwan independence,” it should stop hollowing out or distorting the one-China policy, cease the “salami slicing” on the Taiwan question, and refrain from playing the “Taiwan card” to obstruct China’s peaceful reunification. Since the United States has promised not to look for conflict with China, it should respect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, stop interfering in China’s internal affairs or undermine China’s legitimate interests under the pretext of human rights or democracy. The United States should also remove the additional tariffs imposed on China as quickly as possible and stop the unilateral sanctions on Chinese businesses.

For his part, Secretary of State Blinken provided a more measured assessment:

Earlier today, I met with State Councilor Wang Yi of the People’s Republic of China for a little over five hours.  The relationship between the United States and China is highly consequential for our countries but also for the world. We’re committed to managing this relationship, this competition, responsibly as the world expects us to do, leading with diplomacy. State Councilor Wang and I discussed how we see the state of our bilateral relationship, and I had the opportunity to directly communicate our approach to the People’s Republic of China, as I laid out in a speech a few weeks ago.  We talked about regional and global issues in which both of our countries have strong stakes, including the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine and North Korea’s nuclear program.  We discussed where more cooperation between our countries should be possible, including on the climate crisis, food security, global health, counternarcotics.  These are each global challenges that require major countries to do their part within the international community… Moving forward, the United States wants our channels of communication with Beijing to continue to remain open. 

Following this measured overview, Blinken then listed America’s “concerns”: 

I conveyed the deep concerns of the United States regarding Beijing’s increasingly provocative rhetoric and activity toward Taiwan and the vital importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and I relayed our concerns about the repression of freedom in Hong Kong, forced labor, the treatment of ethnic and religious minorities in Tibet, the genocide in Xinjiang. Now, none of these are easy topics, but the United States seeks always to be a consistent voice on human rights and fundamental freedoms, not to stand against China or any other country but to help advance peace, security, and human dignity.  As always, I raised cases of Americans who are detained or otherwise unable to leave the country. 

Wang Yi offered his own tough words and warnings in response:

Wang Yi gave a comprehensive overview of China’s stern position on the Taiwan question. He stressed that the United States must be cautious with its words and actions, must not send any wrong signal to “Taiwan independence” forces, must not underestimate the firm resolve of the Chinese people to defend their territorial sovereignty, and must not make fundamental mistakes that would imperil peace in the Taiwan Strait. Wang also refuted the United States’ erroneous views on Xinjiang, Hong Kong and maritime issues, among others.

Then Wang doubled down by reiterating the “demands” Beijing has made of Washington:

China has thus put forth four lists to the US side, i.e., the list of US wrongdoings that must stop, the list of key individual cases that the US must resolve, the list of Acts in the 117th Congress of high concern to China, and the list of cooperation proposals in eight areas, which the Chinese side hopes will be taken seriously by the US side.

Russia’s invasion and brutal war against Ukraine was another significant difference. Secretary Blinken bluntly warned Wang: 

More than four months now into this brutal invasion, the PRC is still standing by Russia. It’s echoing Russian propaganda around the world.  It’s shielding Russia in international organizations.  I believe it’s shirking its responsibility as a P5 member, as I said, and even engaging in joint military exercises. We saw that just recently with a joint strategic bomber patrol in East Asia. 

Blinken continued to characterize China as complicit in Russia’s aggression. 

Now, what you hear from Beijing is that it claims to be neutral.  I would start with the proposition that it’s pretty hard to be neutral when it comes to this aggression.  There is a clear aggressor.  There is a clear victim.  There is a clear challenge not only to the lives and livelihoods of people in Ukraine, but there is a challenge to the international order that China and the United States as permanent members of the Security Council are supposed to uphold.

If this was the public read-out of the discussions, one can only imagine what it was like behind closed doors. Judging from this exchange, little has changed in the tenor and substance of U.S.-China relations. In public, neither seems to be giving an inch towards addressing the concerns of the other. The relationship remains deeply strained and dysfunctional.

Despite the apparent exchange of differences and grievances, both Wang and Blinken did try to provide some minor optimism for future discussions. Blinken stated, “Despite the complexities of our relationship, I can say with some confidence that our delegations found today’s discussions useful and constructive. Moving forward, the United States wants our channels of communication with Beijing to continue to remain open.” For his part, Wang observed: “Both sides agreed that the dialogue was substantive and constructive, and has helped the two sides increase mutual understanding, reduce misunderstanding and miscalculation, and accumulated conditions for future high-level interactions.”

Looking to the future, both sides have signaled a possible in-person presidential meeting between Xi Jinping and President Biden at the forthcoming G-20 Summit in Bali in November. The fact that the two sides seem to have regularized dialogue mechanisms is positive and somewhat reassuring—but the wide gulf between them on virtually all issues remains real cause for concern.

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