First signs of thaw in US-China ties, but road to normalcy is uphill

Jun 01, 2023 06:55 PM IST

The resumption of formal bilateral dialogue has been accompanied by deepening friction and sustained suspicion

The freeze in Sino-United States (US) engagement, following the balloon incident, appears to be finally thawing. The signs were evident in early May in a conversation between Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang and US ambassador Nicholas Burns in Beijing. This was followed by a meeting between China’s top diplomat Wang Yi and US national security adviser Jake Sullivan in Vienna. A few weeks after that, in his remarks to the press in Hiroshima, US President Joe Biden, indicated that dialogue was expected to resume.

It is important to temper expectations of what can be achieved from this new round of engagement. (AP) PREMIUM
It is important to temper expectations of what can be achieved from this new round of engagement. (AP)

Since then, in just the past week, China’s commerce minister Wang Wentao met with his American counterpart, commerce secretary Gina Raimondo. This was the first meeting between cabinet-level officials from the two countries in Washington during the Biden presidency. China also appointed former vice foreign minister Xie Feng as its new ambassador to the US last week. The post had been vacant since January, following Qin Gang’s promotion as foreign minister. Another key event last week was the political parties-level engagement between the Communist Party of China and representatives from the Republican and Democratic parties. More exchanges among high-level officials are expected in the weeks and months ahead.

However, this resumption of formal bilateral dialogue has been accompanied by deepening friction and sustained suspicion. For instance, Chinese officials have repeatedly accused the US of duplicity and impinging on Beijing’s red line on Taiwan. In March, Chinese President Xi Jinping name-checked the US, accusing it of engaging in “containment, blockade and suppression of China.” In the past few months, Chinese diplomats have also intensified outreach to America’s European partners to reject what they describe as camp confrontation. The message to the developing world, meanwhile, has been framed in the language of rejecting hegemonism, unilateralism, coercion and power politics.

Similarly, in the US, views on China among lawmakers and the public have continued to harden. The new US House of Representatives Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party recently recommended punitive actions in connection with the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang and to deter aggression against Taiwan. A Pew Survey in April found that four in 10 Americans now consider China an enemy. In addition, arriving at a common position on key issues related to the rise of China was a central aspect of the G7 summit. The meeting ended with a united stand among the world’s richest countries on issues that Beijing considers as its core interests. From the Chinese perspective, the G7 meeting revealed “the shadow of American hegemony,” which has turned the group into another clique, aimed at containing China. Beijing is also increasingly wary of the possibility of a more formal NATO presence in the Indo-Pacific in the form of a liaison office in Japan.

Given this context, it is important to temper expectations of what can be achieved from this new round of engagement. At present, the thaw is limited to the extent that there is resumption of some formal dialogue. In other words, while the US and China are going from informal-to-no conversation to some structured formal conversations, there is a long way to go for both sides to be able to address each other’s core concerns.

Beijing ultimately desires acceptance of its peer status. This implies American deference to China’s interests in the Indo-Pacific, along with respect for Beijing’s development goals. This was underscored in the first remarks by Xie Feng upon landing in Washington. He called on the US and China to “reject the Cold War mentality and zero-sum game” and “explore the right way to get along with each other in the new era.” In essence, Xie reiterated the need for the two sides to identify a new equilibrium, given the changes in the relative balance of power. The US, meanwhile, appears to be approaching dialogue within the framework of responsibly managing competition between the two sides, or establishing guardrails amid sustained competition. In other words, the US desires risk reduction amid vigorous competition, while engendering some productivity in areas of common concern.

The Biden administration has been rather consistent in articulating this objective. Beijing, on the other hand, has gone from dismissing this desire for guardrails as meaning that China “should not respond in words or action when slandered or attacked” to now arguing that stabilising ties, avoiding a downward spiral and preventing accidents should be “top priority” for the two sides. Some believe that this shift is a product of the Chinese leadership’s desire to ease the pressure it is facing from the US and its allies. Others have argued that Beijing believes it is in a stronger position at present after its intense engagement with leaders from Europe and the developing world since late March.

Perhaps, the answer to this question can be found in the recent controversy of a Chinese jet flying some 400 feet near the nose of a US surveillance aircraft in the South China Sea. The US says such aggressive moves are becoming a pattern of behaviour in the region, which underscores why resuming military-to-military dialogue is urgent. China, meanwhile, has refused to agree to a meeting between US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart Li Shangfu on the sidelines of the upcoming Shangri-La Dialogue forum in Singapore. Li was sanctioned under CAATSA by the US in 2018. The Chinese side describes the sanctions as unilateral, illegal and an obstacle to dialogue. It wants them lifted, as a sign of sincerity and dialogue among equals. The US State Department, meanwhile, has ruled out lifting the sanctions. Clearly, it appears that Beijing believes it is negotiating from a position of strength.

Manoj Kewalramani is chair of the Indo-Pacific Studies Programme at Takshashila Institution, and author of Smokeless Wars: China’s Quest for Geopolitical Dominance

The views expressed are personal

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