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Foreign Policy

Unexpected Talks in Hawaii

Jun 24, 2020
  • Yang Wenjing

    Chief of US Foreign Policy, Institute of Contemporary International Relations

As the Sino-U.S. relationship moves to a historical low point, a meeting unexpectedly took place on June 16 and 17 in Honolulu, Hawaii, between Yang Jiechi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, and Mike Pompeo, the U.S. secretary of state. It was the first meeting of the pair since last August, when Yang paid a visit to New York and met with Pompeo in an attempt to reduce Sino-U.S. tensions amid disagreements over Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan in the course of the trade war.

Although no concrete achievements were made and no form of joint statement was reached this time, the meeting itself has signifies that each side intends to engage and keep in touch with each other at rocky moments. According to a report by Xinhua News Agency, both sides “fully elaborated on their stances, agreeing that this was a constructive dialogue.”

Yang and Pompeo did agree to maintain contact and communication. Whereas the U.S. side seems more succinct, it has neither criticized nor mentioned anything specific, only saying that the U.S. stressed the need for transparency and information-sharing to fight the pandemic and prevent future outbreaks. Pompeo also raised the need for “fully reciprocal dealings between the two nations across commercial, security, and diplomatic interactions.”

The U.S. has not made any comment on the seven-hour dialogue, rather sticking to some very general principles on how to govern its relationship with China currently and in the future.

As a matter of fact, under the current circumstance of deterioration, it is unrealistic that any concrete and fruitful result will suddenly be reached. Then why bother having this meeting?

Three reasons can be listed:

First, it’s imperative for both sides, especially China, to clearly explain its current positions on issues of greatest concern. Last month, the Trump administration presented a comprehensive approach to China in a document called the “United States Strategic Approach to the PRC,” in which it announced that China and the U.S. have entered a phase of perpetual strategic competition — a step further on its whole-government approach toward China.

On May 29, Trump launched a blistering attack on Beijing, naming “misdeeds that range from espionage to the violation of Hong Kong’s freedoms,” and announced a slew of retaliatory measures, including the U.S. stripping Hong Kong of the special status Washington had previously granted it.

It seems the U.S. intends to use “maximum pressure,” a coercive approach, to force China to acquiesce to the U.S. will — to meet the U.S. standard of “reciprocity" across all fields and stopped its “aggressive” behavior. Some even hoped Yang’s visit would result in a postponement of China's implementation of national security legislation in Hong Kong.

On the contrary, Yang told Pompeo that Hong Kong affairs were an internal matter, and the U.S. should respect China’s sovereignty and stop interfering in its internal affairs. Yang also expressed “strong dissatisfaction” with Trump’s signing of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, saying the U.S. should stop engaging in double standards on anti-terrorism issues. He reiterated that Taiwan was an inalienable part of China. All this shows that China wanted to use the platform to clarify bottom lines on the issues above and not yield to U.S. pressure.

Second, China has been much more proactive nowadays in shaping the Sino-U.S. relationship. Face-to-face talk at high levels is certainly an efficient and direct way to convey policy considerations.

Yang told Pompeo that cooperation was the “only proper choice for China and the United States … [and] the Chinese side is devoted to working together with the United States to develop a relationship with no conflict and no confrontation, of mutual respect and win-win cooperation.”

This conforms to the spirit of a new model of big power relationships, which has been long held by the Chinese government. China endorses win-win cooperation, but it can never surrender its vital interests for the sake of cooperation and stability.

Third, although the trade deal was not discussed, Yang’s position on sticking to cooperation demonstrates China’s intention to continue to carry out the deal and tap its potential to stabilize the relationship — or at least save it from the worst. Earlier this year, the two sides reached a phase-one trade deal, signaling a temporary truce in the trade war. This lessened to some extent the tension that had been accumulating since Trump took office. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has made the implementation of the trade deal more difficult.

Some U.S. media guessed that the phase-one deal was already dying a slow death because of China’s decision to halt purchases of U.S. soybeans in response to the possibility that the U.S. might revoke Hong Kong’s special status. Furthermore, the pandemic has depressed Chinese demand for U.S. oil and natural gas.

Trump has repeatedly expressed irritation with China recently, saying the trade deal had “lost a little flavor” and threatening to cut off the whole relationship.  However, U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer said Chinese authorities had already bought sizable amounts of U.S. agricultural goods, and China intended to comply with the phase one deal.

The different interpretations of the extent of China’s fulfillment of the trade deal inside the U.S. government reveals that the U.S. has not yet given up the trade deal as one of its levers for political gain. Transactions between China and the U.S. still count in the much-troubled Sino-U.S. relationship, and there is room to engage in this realm in the days to come.

With the U.S. presidential election drawing near, the China issue will surely become a useful card for both candidates. The difficulty of managing the aftermath of Covid-19 adds ammunition for China-bashing inside the U.S.

No matter who wins the election, the strategic shift toward a more confrontational and competitive China policy could spell doom. Yet with communication channels open, the intent to manage crises in place and the bond of economic interests, a competitive yet manageable relationship can be reasonably expected.  

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