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Foreign Policy

Breakthroughs at Zurich?

Oct 11, 2021
  • Sun Zhe

    Co-director, China Initiative, Columbia University; Senior Research Fellow, Institute of State Governance Studies, Beijing University

Yang Jiechi - Sullivan.jpg

Yes, the China-U.S. Zurich meeting made some breakthroughs. The biggest achievement was the announcement that presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden will hold a virtual meeting via video link before the end of the year. Biden has anticipated this for some time. One goal of their previous two phone conversations was to reassure Biden that a channel of direct communication with the Chinese leader was available. During their September conversation, he particularly expressed the hope to “see” President Xi again next time. 

The purpose of effective communication is to manage the fierce conflicts and competition in a responsible manner and open up new prospects for future cooperation. Therefore, as the specifics of the expected presidential video link are decided, Chinese and U.S. officials will discuss in greater details the timing and layered subjects of the meeting — which is actually a process of gradually setting the course for the next stage of bilateral ties that will benefit relations. 

Second, although the U.S. side repeated old tunes, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, generally avoided offensive language. Instead he repeatedly pledged to maintain close high-level contact and communication with the Chinese side, preserve the hard-earned atmosphere of sincere dialogue and candid exchange, jointly explore the route and methods for coping with major transnational challenges and manage the risks in U.S.-China relations. The Chinese side also found the dialogue positive, calling the Zurich talks “constructive” and conducive to in-depth bilateral communication.

Does the meeting mean that China-U.S. relations have turned around and begun heading toward a thaw?

China and the U.S. have had several rounds of wrangling this year. Since Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited China and held the “Tianjin talks” with the Chinese side, the U.S. COVID-19 virus-tracing report was aborted in August; John Kerry’s second China visit for talks on climate cooperation took place in September; and, in early October, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai’s speech on U.S. policy with China carried a relatively mild tone and even sent some conciliatory messages. So bilateral ties at least have not continued deteriorating but are showing signs of a gradual thaw. Although signs of a flip-flop, or improvement, don’t constitute major strategic shifts, they have created favorable conditions for the relationship to get back on its normal track, even for bilateral cooperation.

No matter how successful a round of dialogue is, it cannot resolve all the thorny issues between the two parties. We still need to pay due attention to the three most outstanding divergences and contradictions between China and the U.S.:

First, the U.S. side insists on China changing the angle from which it sees matters — forcing it to accept two dialogue frameworks, one for bilateral topics and the other for regional and international hot spot issues. The U.S. side believes China should not require it to circumvent contradictions and avoid criticizing China just because the U.S. needs to collaborate with China on such issues. In other words, the U.S. will accept no tradeoff when it comes to its own values and principles. Such a condescending approach to dialogue obviously contradicts its vow to manage China-U.S. competition in a responsible and flexible manner. 

Second, Sullivan conveyed U.S. “concerns” about issues of human rights, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, the South China Sea and Taiwan, and suggested China should change its policies and behavior. But he didn’t listen carefully to China’s criticism of the mistaken positions of the U.S. on such topics, nor clarify whether the U.S. would change course on such issues as Xinjiang and Hong Kong, which interferes in Chinese domestic affairs, or elaborate what practical moves the U.S. would take to preserve peace regarding Taiwan and the South China Sea.

At the international level, the U.S. may continue its practice of clique-forming in the Indo-Pacific. Sullivan didn’t present any pragmatic U.S. government plan for how China and the U.S. should cooperate on pandemic containment, at the same time coordinating macro policies for global economic recovery. He made no mention of the rhetoric and unreasonable policies of some U.S. politicians, who are against China literally on everything. Therefore, it remains an extremely challenging task to transform the “soil” in the U.S. that poisons China-U.S. relations.

Third, although the two sides had “particularly in-depth” candid exchanges in Zurich about Taiwan, Sullivan’s position was identical to the tough rhetoric of people like Secretary of State Antony Blinken. While stating that U.S. relations with Taiwan are “rock solid” during his ongoing trip to Europe, he said Beijing was attempting to “unilaterally change the status quo.” At the same time he turned a blind eye to the brinksmanship of the DPP authorities in Taiwan and even showed bias toward them. The White House and State Department have also repeatedly pledged to support Taiwan to enhance its “defensive capabilities.”

The generally pro-DPP attitude of the U.S. has emboldened the island’s authorities to refuse to recognize the 1992 consensus until now, attempt to rename Taiwan to legitimatize and internationalize Taiwan independence, intentionally strengthen collusion with the U.S. against the people’s will and even directly provoke the mainland. Therefore, to a great extent, and over a very long time, the U.S. will continue to be at the crux of cross-Straits relations.  

The original goal of the Zurich meeting was for the two sides to discuss implementing and promoting the consensus the two countries’ leaders reached in September. In fact, during the phone call with Biden, Xi made three points clear: First, China-U.S. questions about relations must be answered well. Second, China and the U.S. should proceed from the big picture, be responsible powers that are forward-looking and show strategic insight and political will. Third, the two countries should continue their contacts and dialogue and promote cooperation on the basis of respecting each other’s core concerns while properly managing differences.

China and the U.S. both have many domestic affairs to handle this year and next. If both can concentrate on straightening out their own domestic concerns and managing bilateral ties well to avoid a further slide, China-U.S. relations will witness truly great changes. In this sense, the longest journey is the journey inward.

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