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Not Entirely a Surprise, but a Welcome One Nonetheless – On the Partial Dethawing to U.S.-China Relations

Oct 26, 2021
  • Brian Wong

    Assistant Professor in Philosophy, HKU and Rhodes Scholar

Three very important conversations between China and the U.S. took place over the past month or so: the phone call between President Xi and President Biden, the Zurich meeting between Politburo member Yang Jiechi and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and most recently, the virtual meeting between Vice Premier Liu He and Ambassador Katherine Tai. 

These phone calls were significant, not only because of the (limited) progress they had achieved over substantive issues. Indeed, Tai and Liu remained largely divergent and divided over the extent to which China has reasonably honoured its end of the Phase 1 trade deal; Xi and Biden – whilst engaging in ideologically and domestic politics-driven exchanges – understandably did not delve into the nitty-gritty of policies and policymaking (that was, of course, a task to be left to more junior diplomats and bureaucrats); indeed, even Yang and Sullivan’s summit had seen relatively minimal commitments to firm foreign policy shifts from both sides of the equation. 

Yet concrete policy reorientation was never the point – one should expect that few of such changes would emerge directly and explicitly from such conversations. These bilateral exchanges are instead significant for two reasons: firstly, in building up political goodwill for further discussions; secondly, in signalling to domestic stakeholders a pivotal commitment from both the White House and Zhongnanhai. 

Political goodwill has never been more important. The recent meetings between senior members of the Beijing and Washington administrations, came right off the bat of the respective releases of Meng Wanzhou and the two Canadians imprisoned for ostensible espionage – in turn testament to how one-off acts could serve as pivotal olive branches at a time when mutual trust is at its lowest. Both China and the U.S. alike affirmed two core tenets concerning their modus operandi – the first constitutes the commitment to more open, equitable, and reciprocal dialogue across a number of areas, including areas in which commonalities can be sought; the second, and perhaps best epitomised by Tai and Liu’s detailed conversations over trade terms, is that both sides are willing to seek mutually agreeable, partial compromises on areas of divergence. It is the latter signal – across domains of economic competition and geopolitical rivalry – that is most comforting and pleasing to see. 

These exchanges also precipitated a growing receptiveness towards a more in-depth dialogue between the two leaders of the largest national economies in the world. President Xi and President Biden have now tentatively scheduled for a virtual meeting by the year’s end – putting a more conclusive end (than the recent phone call) to one and a half years of radio silence between the highest echelons of power in Beijing and Washington. Questions obviously remain – over what domains will Xi and Biden broker new consensus, if at all? How will China and the United States set aside, if at all possible, emotively charged debates over the respective governing ideologies and systems? Can both parties push back against the domestic pressures to toughen up in face of the largely constructed, imaginary “adversary” identified in the Other? 

Hence secondly, on domestic opinion. The extent to which domestic politics has contributed towards the unravelling of Sino-American relations should not be overstated – yet whether it be the rise of ascendant, revanchist nationalism amongst the Chinese population, or the political instincts of American politicians in identifying an easy “Bogeyman” for their domestic woes, domestic political considerations have demonstrably shaped the foreign policies of both parties. 

Given this, recent dialogues are fruitful in highlighting two upshots – firstly, that respectful exchanges, starkly different from the wolf-warrior diplomacy embraced by some in the Chinese diplomatic corps, and the unidimensional China bashing adopted by zealots in the American establishment, are in fact possible. Secondly, and perhaps more imminently, the leaderships of both countries are willing to dial down the vociferous rhetoric a notch or two, in order to get to grips with maximising commonalities and managing their differences. 

In China, state-controlled media have also embraced a softer, more conciliatory tone in light of these exchanges. Certain outlets have openly remarked that Ambassador Tai’s receptiveness towards further negotiations and dialogue on the terms of U.S.-China trade, is reflective of an attitude both conducive towards engagement and more cognizant of the interests and feelings of the Chinese population. As for select segments of the American press, the reception is similarly receptive – Wall Street Journal, for one, noted that “U.S.-China Trade Talks Take First Steps in Re-Engagement.” Re-engagement is indeed the hope – though as with all high hopes, prudence and pragmatism are always needed. 

A worry remains – that is, the issue of Taiwan. For Beijing, as demonstrably indicated through President Xi’s defiant remarks on the 110th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution and foundation of the Republic of China (Oct 10), Taiwan remains an issue over which Beijing has very little nominal room to budge: indeed, the Communist Party of China views Taiwan as a constituent part of China, and attempts to advance Taiwanese secession and independence would be akin to a fundamental affront on Beijing’s political authority. 

On the other hand, America views Taiwan as a strategic outpost of its military and geopolitical interests in East Asia, as well as an effective tool in its ongoing efforts at constraining China’s expansionism. The botched evacuation of Afghanistan has rendered Washington all-the-more determined that it does not and will not cede any further on items of vital importance in its foreign policy. In the event of a military provocation or incursion from Beijing, Washington sees itself as having no choice but to act. Such retaliation would in turn culminate at a catastrophic escalation in military force and conflict in the region. Nobody, absolutely nobody, would win. 

In an ideal world, of course, neither Beijing nor Washington sees a need to move on Taiwan in military terms – and the “Taiwan problem”, so to speak, is resolved in a cordial and peaceful manner cognizant of the interests of all parties involved. In practice, this may be easier said than done. Whilst a full-on war over Taiwan remains somewhat unlikely, the risk of limited military altercations and confrontations should not be underestimated. Indeed, a single confrontation or run-in between American and Chinese troops near Taiwan, could well do far more damage than merely undoing the past month of “progress” in bilateral relations. Beware the temptations of gung-ho militarism and unbridled, unmanaged revanchism. 

All in all, there are clear signs that the deterioration to U.S.-China relations is slowing – though whether there is a more permanent reversal of ongoing trends in sight, remains a question that only time will tell. The partial dethawing of U.S.-China relations should be interpreted with prudence – those advocating that a clear reset is in sight must be wary of over-reading into what could just as well be strategic measures implemented to manage the continued free fall in relations and escalating animosity across the Pacific – especially in light of flashpoints such as Taiwan. 

On the other hand, the savvy tact of veteran politicians across both sides, fully exemplified by the past weeks of recalibration, is at least partially reassuring – moderation in rhetoric, openness to compromise, and acceptance that neither China nor the United States can or should aspire towards total domination over the other, is crucial in paving the way for more permanent reduction in misunderstandings and grievances across the Pacific. 

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