This summer Washington has taken steps to reinvigorate high-level diplomatic engagement with Beijing. This is a process that was ostensibly agreed to by Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping during a summit in Bali, Indonesia last November but largely suspended after the appearance of a Chinese surveillance balloon over the United States in February. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who postponed a visit to Beijing in the wake of the balloon incident, traveled there in June, followed by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry in July. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo is also expected to visit China later this month, and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi has been invited to Washington.
Yet substantive progress in easing bilateral tensions and fostering some positive momentum in the relationship appears to remain stalled. Instead, the series of meetings to date have been generally characterized by an exchange of familiar talking points on both sides. Blinken and his U.S. colleagues have reiterated that the purpose of engagement is to “maintain open channels of communication” and “responsibly manage competition by reducing the risk of misperception and miscalculation.” For their part, the Chinese interlocutors have invariably invoked the need to follow through on the Bali agreement and reiterated that Beijing’s goal is a relationship based on the principles of “mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and win-win cooperation.” Predictably, they have also repeated their longstanding complaints about U.S. policy toward “the Taiwan question,” which remains “the core of China’s core interests.”
One roadblock on the path to reengagement is Beijing’s refusal to accept a meeting between Chinese defense minister Li Shangfu and U.S. defense secretary Lloyd Austin as long as Li remains under sanctions imposed by Washington in 2018 for his prior involvement in Russian arms transfers to China. But last month Li was willing to meet with—and deliver Beijing’s talking points to—visiting centenarian Henry Kissinger. Xi Jinping himself met with Kissinger while declining to meet with Yellen and Kerry. Much U.S. commentary criticized both Beijing and Kissinger for this—Chinese leaders were characterized as playing favorites with American interlocutors, and Kissinger as playing his perennial role as a channel for the Chinese perspective. But this criticism was overblown: Beijing recognizes the limits on Kissinger’s influence in Washington; the U.S. president does not normally meet with Chinese cabinet officials; and Kissinger has genuine and legitimate concerns about the trajectory of the U.S.-China relationship.
Nonetheless, the attention generated by the Kissinger episode—especially his meeting with Defense Minister Li—highlights that U.S.-China relations are caught in a narrative spin cycle. Blinken said in a subsequent interview that the U.S. sanctions against Li are “no practical impediment” to his meeting with U.S. officials, so “it is a political decision” for Beijing to decide whether to engage with him. But the sanctions themselves were a political decision, with no practical effect. Separately, Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell said in an interview last month that Beijing’s current aversion to U.S.-China military dialogue is a byproduct of Chinese civil-military relations and other “structural” issues, and is probably not “directly related to the state of U.S.-China relations.” But this bypasses the impact of recent bilateral developments, especially regarding Taiwan, that almost certainly have influenced Beijing’s calculus of the utility of military dialogue with Washington.
The reason U.S.-China relations are not moving positively forward has much to do with the symmetry in the way the two sides are approaching the relationship—a symmetry which neither side appears prepared to acknowledge, or perhaps even able to recognize. Both Washington and Beijing are asserting an interest in renewed substantive engagement, but both of them—in an effort to claim the upper hand—are seeking to portray the other as the supplicant. Moreover, both sides are blaming the other for the lack of progress toward engagement, while at the same time continuing to take retributive actions that are bound to obstruct progress. In short, both sides want it both ways: to get the process started, but only on terms favorable to their respective agendas.
This symmetry is evident in corresponding statements by Chinese and U.S. officials. For example, when Wang Yi met with Blinken in June, he said (according to the Chinese readout) that “the root cause” of the nadir in bilateral relations is “US misperceptions toward China which [have] led to misguided China policies” in Washington. Mirroring that, Campbell in his interview in July said that Washington seeks in its interactions with Beijing “to dispel some mistaken views about the United States”—adding that “China perhaps seeks to do the same with us.”
Several of Campbell’s other remarks also parallel the Chinese narrative and mindset. He observed that “We hear a long list of grievances in every interaction [with Beijing] . . . There’s a lot of recitation of talking points [and often] you get the sense that people are talking for their own teams as much as for us.” He added, however, that “at the same time we believe we’re laying down markers about issues we think are important.” Campbell also said that Beijing appeared to decide earlier this year to withhold engagement with Washington but “suddenly, that changed a few months ago” after the Chinese apparently concluded that “certain kinds of common engagement might make sense.” But Beijing similarly views its interactions with U.S. officials as featuring lists of grievances against China—often for the benefit of the American audience—and sees itself as “laying down markers” on issues important to China. Moreover, Chinese officials almost certainly judge that it was the U.S. side that suspended engagement earlier this year—after the balloon incident—but altered course out of diplomatic necessity.
Campbell affirmed the U.S. narrative that Beijing is primarily if not exclusively responsible for the downturn in bilateral relations. He attributed this largely to the leadership of Xi Jinping, who—in Campbell’s assessment—“embarked on a very ambitious course” to exploit what Beijing sees as the United States’ strategic decline following the Global Financial Crisis. Reiterating his longstanding view that earlier periods of U.S. engagement with Beijing were based on flawed assumptions about the United States’ ability to influence China, Campbell said Washington had taken too long to recognize that it was “dealing with a competitor that was seeking to undermine it in many ways.” Given the nature and scope of that challenge, he said that “some of the things that China is doing require a consequential set of actions to push back.” But Beijing obviously sees a similar equation in reverse: Chinese leaders assess that Washington is “trying to undermine [China] in many ways,” and that Beijing is necessarily pursuing a “set of actions to push back.”
This touches on another similarity between the U.S. and Chinese approaches to each other: the elevation of “national security” concerns. In a recent article, scholar Sheena Chestnut Greitens examines Xi’s expansive national security agenda and initiatives, and shows how they ultimately reflect an obsession with maintaining the security and tenure of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime. Although there obviously are profound differences between the CCP system and America’s two-party democracy—and between their respective strategic goals and means of pursuing them—the national security theme has also become more prominent in US policy towards China. This has been particularly reflected in the ongoing debate over U.S. “derisking” in its economic ties to China. During her visit to Beijing, Yellen emphasized that Washington’s “targeted actions” to “diversify critical supply chains” are “necessary to protect our national security interests” and “motivated by straightforward national security considerations.” Corresponding U.S. policies are being pursued in the military realm, but also in response to the perceived threat of Chinese influence operations in—and intelligence operations against—the United States. Thus the U.S. approach to China is also being driven in part by an expanding definition of what constitutes “national security” and the threats to it.
Finally, there is symmetry in the persistence of confrontational actions by both sides that continue to undermine the potential for substantive progress in engagement. Coercive and provocative Chinese actions run the gamut, from aggressive military behavior in the South and East China Seas to cyber hacking operations, mercenary economic behavior, and caustic diplomacy. Meanwhile, Washington continues to tighten export and investment restrictions involving China and to engage in bilateral and multilateral diplomacy explicitly aimed at countering China’s influence. In addition, the White House recently announced a new $345 million arms package for Taiwan, and Taiwanese vice president Lai Ching-Te is expected to be allowed to transit the United States later this month.
The Taiwan issue merits particular mention here as probably the single biggest obstacle to constructive reengagement between Washington and Beijing. This is partly because it exemplifies the symmetry outlined above—with both sides blaming the other for escalating tensions while continuing to take steps that exacerbate the problem—and partly because it really is foundational to the U.S.-China relationship. There will be limited room for substantial improvement in U.S.-China relations as long as Washington maintains that its “one China policy” is clear, credible, and “has not changed”; and as long as Beijing continues to respond to that U.S. position—and to Taipei’s own retreat from a “one China” framework—with belligerent rhetoric and coercive cross-Strait behavior. The failure or refusal of both sides to acknowledge that they are doing anything unwarranted with regard to Taiwan, and to meaningfully confront the core dilemma of the Taiwan issue, is gradually eroding the stability of the overall relationship.