Why Cooperation Between the United States and China Remains Elusive

Why Cooperation Between the United States and China Remains Elusive

The Shangri-La meeting was a lost opportunity in this regard, but fortunately not the last one.


Following Chinese president Xi Jinping’s April summit with European Union leaders, EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell described the event as the “dialogue of the deaf” because Xi largely sidestepped the issue his European counterparts most wanted to discuss: Ukraine. Another dialogue of the deaf occurred earlier this month when U.S. secretary of defense Lloyd Austin and Chinese defense minister Wei Fenghe were featured participants at the “Shangri-La Dialogue,” an annual high-profile East Asian regional security conference held in Singapore. Although Austin and Wei both affirmed the importance of U.S.-China dialogue and stable relations, they mostly talked past each other.

According to the terse readouts published by each side, Austin and Wei’s first-ever bilateral meeting consisted of little more than exchanging predictable talking points. Wei’s bottom line was that Washington needs to stop “attacking ... smearing ... containing ... [and] suppressing” China, interfering in its internal affairs, and harming its interests. Deflecting that litany of complaints, Austin said the two sides needed to “responsibly manage competition and maintain open lines of communication”—a rather minimalist approach to diplomatic relations, and something U.S. national security advisor Jake Sullivan reiterated to his Chinese counterpart a few days later. The Wei-Austin meeting does not appear to have been a major breakthrough in mutual understanding and closer cooperation.


More revealing is the contrast between Austin and Wei’s subsequent public speeches at the conference, and the different mindsets they reflected. Austin’s presentation, predictably and to a large extent appropriately, focused on “the power of partnership.” He highlighted the importance of the network of U.S. allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region—which he described as the United States’ “priority theater of operations” and the “heart of American grand strategy.” He outlined a shared commitment to a “free and open rules-based order” built upon principles of transparency, accountability, freedom of the seas, and peaceful resolution of disputes; an order in which all countries are free to pursue their interests without fear of aggression or intimidation. Austin said that “most countries across the Indo-Pacific share [this] common vision,” and he expressed satisfaction that the network of U.S. partnerships had deepened and strengthened in pursuit of that vision.

One of Austin’s central themes was the “inclusiveness” of the U.S. approach. The future of the region, he said, “will be written not by any one country but by all the peoples of the Indo-Pacific.” Accordingly, Washington seeks “inclusion, not division” or a “region split into hostile blocs” because the challenges facing the Indo-Pacific “demand shared responsibility and common action.”

Largely absent from this inclusive framework, however, was China itself. Indeed, at no point did Austin acknowledge the possibility that Beijing might share any element of the vision he outlined or might be engaged as part of the multilateral process of pursuing it. On the contrary, it was self-evident that his characterization of the “free and open rules-based order”—echoing earlier portrayals by other U.S. officials—was to be understood as the antithesis of what China represents in the region. And when he observed that the U.S. approach has “become even more inclusive” in recent years, this took the form of “expanded ... cooperation with our allies and partners” and “new and existing regional institutions,” the latter of which mostly exclude China. Although Austin said Washington was “working closely with both our competitors and our friends,” with regard to Beijing this included only “open lines of communication with China’s defense leaders to ensure that we can avoid any miscalculations.” China thus appears to be largely incidental and external to U.S. multilateralism in the region.

U.S. policymakers have often asserted that “getting China policy right” requires first “getting Asia policy right.” But it is difficult to see how they can really be pursued separately or sequentially. Indeed, is hard to reconcile the idea that “all peoples of the Indo-Pacific” will determine the future of the region with a strategy that essentially defines the most consequential country in Asia as the core problem, largely excludes it from Washington’s regional engagement strategy, and effectively makes it the target of that strategy.

Although Austin said the United States does not seek “confrontation or conflict” or a “new Cold War” with China, Washington’s zero-sum and not-really-inclusive approach to East Asia was reflected in his reiteration of the Biden administration’s assurance that it will not require other countries to choose between the United States and China. He declared that “our fellow Indo-Pacific nations should be free to choose ... and free to chart their own course.” But he immediately averred that “this region has already cast its vote on what kind of future it seeks ... one rooted in the rule of law, and a profound commitment to freedom and openness.” That obviously means a vote not in China’s favor. Similarly, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command commander John Aquilino also said at the Shangri-La conference that Washington “will never ask any nation to choose ... But as we look toward the future, there is a free and open Indo-Pacific, or there is an opaque and closed Indo-Pacific where might equals right.” Again, offering a “Hobson’s choice” is not really a choice. And although Austin implicitly criticized Beijing for its “obsolete belief in a world carved up into spheres of influence,” Washington’s own Indo-Pacific strategy appears aimed at sustaining an American sphere of influence.

Given that scene-setter, is it not surprising that Wei’s speech the following day occasionally took the form of a rebuttal of Austin’s. Indeed, Wei openly declared that he disagreed with Austin on several points, and he repeated the charge of “smearing accusations” and “even threats against China” from the United States. But beyond that rhetoric, there were striking aspects of symmetry between the two speeches. Whereas Austin had framed China (mostly without naming it) as the main threat to the region because of the looming dangers to freedom, openness, international law, peace, and stability, Wei defined the threat (mostly without naming the United States) in terms of “hegemony and power politics ... confrontation, containment, decoupling ... unilateral sanctions, and long-arm jurisdiction.” He did, however, explicitly denounce Washington’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy” as an attempt “to hijack countries in our region and target one specific country.” This reflects in part Beijing’s response to its exclusion from Washington’s regional multilateral diplomacy. But clearly both sides are using caricatures of each other to define the primary challenge they see confronting the region.

What is more surprising, and went largely unnoticed, were the elements of Wei’s speech that overlapped in substance with Austin’s, and thus represent potential areas for mutual understanding and even cooperation—if the two sides could overcome their dismissal of each other’s rhetoric. It is rarely acknowledged or even considered that Beijing actually shares much of Washington’s vision for the Indo-Pacific. For example, Wei cited chapter and verse about “peace and stability,” multilateralism, avoiding rival blocs, peaceful coexistence, sovereign equality between nations, and peaceful settlement of disputes—all themes in Austin’s speech. He also echoed Austin when he said, “confrontation and division will get us nowhere” and emphasized the need for inclusiveness. On freedom of navigation, Wei denied that it was “under threat” from Beijing in the South China Sea because China’s own economy vitally depends upon it. Of course, this applies only to freedom of commercial navigation—not military—and diverging interpretations of international law will continue to hinder U.S.-China agreement on multiple issues. But this need not and should not prevent Washington and Beijing from exploring opportunities for regional multilateralism that includes both of them.

Indeed, that objective was emphasized by other, high-level, third-country participants in the Shangri-La conference—for those who were paying attention. Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida’s keynote address was in lockstep with Austin’s on the “rules-based order” and the “free and open Indo-Pacific,” reflecting Tokyo’s ongoing efforts to reaffirm the U.S.-Japan alliance and shared concerns about China. But Australian defense minister Richard Marles’ speech, although it also affirmed those ideas, added that “it is reasonable to expect a more powerful China will have a bigger say in regional and international affairs” and that “Australia does not question the right of any country to modernize their military capabilities consistent with their interests and resources.” Neither of these notions was reflected in Austin’s speech. Although Marles emphasized the need for Beijing to act with restraint in the region, he was essentially advocating an approach by the United States and its partners that includes and engages China, rather than a strategy arrayed against it. To that end, he repeatedly invoked the need for “reassuring statecraft.”

Similarly, Indonesian defense minister Prabowo Subianto, after affirming the need for a “rules-based order,” stressed that “we must always consider [and] respect the ... rightful interests of the People’s Republic of China.” Because the Chinese “have been leaders of Asia for many thousands of years,” Prabowo said “we urge everybody to respect the rightful rise of China back to its position as a great civilization.” Finally, in the closing speech of the conference, Singaporean defense minister Ng Eng Hen commented on the war in Ukraine—which was a subtext for many of the conference deliberations—and observed that, for Asians, the war “is not an ideological struggle between autocracies and democracies.” He said, “Asian countries are too diverse and pluralistic, and there would be few takers for a battle royale to ensue on that basis.” Instead, Ng explained, “the core issue [in Asia] is about an inter-dependency that [includes China and] is far more developed, productive, and mutually beneficial than [that between] Russia and Europe.” This was essentially Singapore—a staunch U.S. partner—telling Washington that Indo-Pacific countries are not wholly comfortable with the Biden administration’s frequent portrayal of a global contest between democracy and autocracy, and cautioning against making that the framework for a U.S. approach to the region that excludes and targets China. Austin had highlighted the “power of partnership,” but mobilizing that power requires recognizing and reflecting the various partners’ perspectives.

Returning to Wei’s presentation: he occasionally undermined its effectiveness by reverting to anti-U.S. polemics, Chinese Communist Party jargon, and a few eyebrow-raising claims such as the assertion that China has “never proactively started a war against others or occupied one inch of [another country’s] land.” But Wei concluded his speech by correctly observing that “the US-China relationship is at a critical juncture,” and that cooperation between Washington and Beijing will ultimately be essential for global peace and prosperity. On the other hand, he appeared to assign the burden of choice and policy adjustment to the U.S. side: “If you want to talk, we should talk with mutual respect. If you want to engage, we should seek peaceful coexistence. If you want to cooperate, we should promote mutual benefits and win-win cooperation. However, if you want confrontation, we will fight to the end.”

On the latter point, Wei made a forceful statement on the subject of Taiwan, which has preoccupied both sides in recent months. He claimed that Beijing is “still making every effort, with the greatest sincerity, to deliver peaceful unification,” but complained that “some country [obviously the United States] has violated its promise” regarding the “one China” framework. This was standard Chinese rhetoric, but Wei went on in what an official Chinese newspaper called “the strongest ever” and “most clear warning the Chinese side has ever delivered” to Washington on the Taiwan issue: “If anyone dares to secede Taiwan from China, we will not hesitate to fight. We will fight at all costs and we will fight to the very end. This is the only choice for China.”

Beijing clearly is trying to underscore that it has red lines on the Taiwan issue and to warn Washington and Taipei that they are getting closer to those red lines. But just as Wei and Austin had characterized each other’s country as the primary threat to overall peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific, they also held each other accountable for the escalating tensions on the Taiwan Strait. In his speech, Austin reaffirmed Washington’s “one China policy,” but also noted “growing coercion from Beijing,” including “a steady increase in provocative and destabilizing military activity near Taiwan.” Thus, on Taiwan as on most other issues, Wei and Austin reflected the persistence of both sides’ inclination to blame and talk past each other, and to wait for each other to fix the relationship.

There are obvious limits to the potential for convergence of U.S. and Chinese interests and objectives in East Asia. But if Beijing and Washington are able to recognize and acknowledge it, there are also areas of overlap where “shared responsibility and common action”—in Austin’s words—provide opportunities, and even the imperative, for regional multilateralism that includes participation from both China and the United States. Most of the other countries in the Indo-Pacific certainly think so and are eager to see both Beijing and Washington pursue a less hostile and confrontational approach to the region, and to each other. The Shangri-La meeting was a lost opportunity in this regard, but fortunately not the last one.

Paul Heer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for the National Interest and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He served as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia from 2007 to 2015. He is the author of Mr. X and the Pacific: George F. Kennan and American Policy in East Asia (Cornell University Press, 2018).

Image: Reuters.