For the United States and China, Restarting Talks Was the Easy Part

For the United States and China, Restarting Talks Was the Easy Part

An “improvement” in communications does not address the fundamental issue between Washington and Beijing: policies by each country that the other loathes.


Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Beijing this month for meetings with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping and other senior Chinese leaders mostly met the low expectations for the event. Blinken’s journey helps to rejuvenate high-level Sino-U.S. dialogue at a time when the bilateral relationship is at a nadir and might even be drifting toward war in either the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea. The meeting seemingly offers hope for recovery and stabilization of relations. U.S. president Joe Biden said Blinken “did a hell of a job” in Beijing and that “We’re on the right trail here.” Of his meeting with Blinken, Xi said “This is very good.”

Alas, there is abundant reason to be skeptical.


The modest breakthrough has landed the relationship in front of a much bigger and thicker wall. Top-level communication is necessary but not yet sufficient for repairing a damaged relationship. The damage stems primarily from policies by each country that the other loathes. The problem is that neither country may be willing and able to change these policies that antagonize the other.

China’s List of Grievances

Prior to meeting with Xi, Blinken spoke with the PRC’s highest-ranking foreign affairs official, former Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Wang provided an efficient list of China’s top grievances with the United States. As paraphrased by the PRC media, “Wang asked the US to stop hyping the `China threat’ narrative, lift illegal unilateral sanctions on China, stop pressuring China’s technology and development and stop willfully interfering in China's internal affairs.”

“Hyping the China threat” refers to the U.S. concern that China aspires to displace America as the most strategically influential country in the Asia-Pacific region. Beijing contends that the United States erroneously assumes China will naturally seek regional hegemony due to its newly-acquired relative economic and military strength. China, however, is an exceptional great power that will “never seek hegemony, expansion, or a sphere of influence,” according to the CCP government.

The second major Chinese grievance is the United States making it harder for China to acquire key leading-edge technologies, alluded to in the reference to Washington suppressing China’s “technology and development.” Chinese officials and government-approved commentators have for years accused the United States of trying to “contain” China, and recently Xi himself has openly accused Washington of “comprehensive containment, encirclement and suppression of China.” For Beijing, tech bans have become one of two spearpoints of containment. Already working to restrict China’s access to advanced semiconductors, the Biden administration is also considering a ban on U.S. companies from investing in certain technology sectors in China. From Beijing’s standpoint, this is “politicizing and weaponizing economic, trade and technological issues under the guise of national security” when “the real purpose of the US is to deprive China of its right to development.”

The third PRC grievance, “interfering in China’s internal affairs,” includes U.S. criticism of the mass incarceration of Uighurs in Xinjiang province and the dismantling of civil liberties in Hong Kong. It also includes what Beijing sees as the most pressing dispute in Sino-U.S. relations and the other spearpoint of containment: Washington’s support for the government of Taiwan. The new PRC foreign minister, Qin Gang, said in March that Taiwan is “the first red line that must not be crossed in China-US relations.” Wang Yi reportedly told Blinken, “On the Taiwan question, China has no room for compromise or concession.”

The United States is unlikely to address these PRC grievances to anywhere near Beijing’s satisfaction.

The View from Washington

China has amply proved itself an increasingly formidable potential U.S. adversary. It is undergoing a huge military modernization and expansion. It leverages its vast economic power to undermine U.S. global influence. It aspires to world leadership in emerging technologies. And it opposes important aspects of the U.S.-sponsored international order.

The Biden administration’s 2022 National Defense Strategy characterizes the PRC as “coercive and increasingly aggressive,” seeking to “refashion” the world to “suit its interests and authoritarian preferences,” to the detriment of U.S. interests. Obviously, Washington does not accept Beijing’s Chinese exceptionalism or its “will never seek hegemony” rhetoric. Rather, Washington sees the United States and China as competitors for regional and global leadership. The diplomatic aspect of this competition requires America to continue calling out aggressive and expansionist PRC behavior before the international audience, just as Beijing asserts its own counternarrative. Nor is it reasonable to expect the United States to reverse its restrictions on helping its chief potential adversary achieve global technological—and consequent military—superiority.

For Washington to stop “interfering in China’s internal affairs” in the sense of not criticizing China is an impossible ask. Shaming illiberal states for infringing on civil liberties is now a part of America’s political culture, and the CCP leadership has infamously thin skin. Bashing China is now a bipartisan sport in U.S. domestic politics, with the politicians of both major parties scrambling to appear hawkish.

Only a day after the Blinken-Xi meeting, Biden seemingly unintentionally offended Beijing by casually referring to Xi as a “dictator” who was surprised and embarrassed by the spy balloon incident. A PRC government spokesperson immediately responded that Biden’s remark was “extremely absurd and irresponsible. . . . seriously infringing on China’s political dignity, which is an open political provocation.” The White House, in turn, indicated it will not retract the statement.

Beijing demands the United States must stop selling armaments to Taiwan and cease all contact between U.S. and Taiwan government officials. The U.S. position, however, is that arms sales are justified by Beijing’s permanent threat to use force against Taiwan. A U.S. law, the Taiwan Relations Act, requires Washington to “make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services . . . to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” Neither the PRC threat nor the U.S. law are going away anytime soon. Washington also maintains that the “one China policy” is satisfied by the lack of formal U.S.-Taiwan diplomatic relations and does not preclude all contact between U.S. and Taiwan officials. In any case, members of Congress have repeatedly demonstrated that they will honor Taiwan leaders even against opposition from the U.S. executive branch.

American Frustrations

The U.S. side is similarly unlikely to get what it wants.

The most urgent American concern in the bilateral relationship is the need for crisis management. This appeared to be at the top of Blinken’s Beijing agenda.

Related U.S. concerns are perceived aggressive PRC activity toward Taiwan and in the South China Sea, which from the U.S. point of view increase the possibility of an accidental or unintended war.

Beijing could demonstrate goodwill to Washington by ceasing the hostile military signaling toward Taiwan and by quietly accepting the U.S. Navy’s “freedom of navigation operations” in the South China Sea instead of threatening collisions with U.S. ships and aircraft. This, however, is almost unimaginable.

The Chinese government has framed both Taiwan and the South China Sea as do-or-die issues: the CCP either proves its legitimacy to rule China by establishing control over “Chinese” territory coveted by foreigners or fails on both accounts. Regime legitimacy, and thus security, is on the line. So is national security, as Taiwan outside of PRC control anchors the string of islands that form choke points between China’s east coast and the Pacific Ocean. Only by owning the South China Sea can Beijing keep unwanted foreign warships and warplanes away from China’s east coast. There are economic incentives as well: the South China Sea contains fish and hydrocarbons, and if captured, Taiwan would be the PRC’s richest and best-educated province.

Most importantly, the PRC seems to know no alternative way to attempt to de-escalate tensions with the United States over Taiwan and the South China Sea other than demonstrations of military bravado.

There is no hint of Chinese willingness to accommodate the U.S. desire for crisis management. China suspended contact between the two countries’ militaries after U.S. congresswoman Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August 2022. In May, PRC defense minister Li Shangfu refused to meet with U.S. secretary of defense Lloyd Austin on the sidelines of a conference in Singapore. Repeating a phrase PRC officials often use when discussing foreign relations, a PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson explained that the United States “must correct its mistaken actions” for military dialogue to resume.

This position resurfaced during the Biden visit to Beijing, during which China did not agree to the U.S. proposal to restart bilateral military engagement. PRC officials and commentators have elaborated that, in their view, the Americans want China to agree to allow the USA to challenge Chinese “core interests” with impunity. The PRC position is that if the USA wants to avoid crises, it should stop arming Taiwan and cease operating military units in Chinese-claimed waters and airspace.

Qin Gang said in March that the U.S. government’s “so-called `establishing guardrails’ for China-US relations and ‘not seeking conflict’ actually means that China should not respond in words or action when slandered or attacked. That is just impossible!”

Furthermore, Beijing likely sees the U.S. desire for crisis management as merely additional leverage for seeking concessions from Washington in bilateral disputes—an approach similar to Beijing canceling cooperation on climate change to express anger over particular unrelated U.S. policies.