A parade of senior American policy makers is traveling to Beijing on diplomatic missions to mend tattered relations between the United States and China. The U.S. climate envoy John Kerry is expected in Beijing on Sunday, a week after Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen was in town. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited a month ago. After nearly a year of strained communication, the flurry of diplomacy is good news: If the two governments are speaking with each other, perhaps they won’t shoot at each other.
Or at least that’s the idea. The improved dialogue is President Joe Biden’s attempt to demonstrate the possibility of a middle path between conflict and appeasement in contending with China. He believes that the U.S. can and should compete with China while setting in place guardrails that will prevent competition from veering into confrontation. The two countries might even find opportunities to cooperate on pressing global concerns, such as climate change.
China’s leader Xi Jinping appears amenable, at least for the moment. In fact, Xi’s government was so eager to paint Yellen’s visit in a positive light that it laid things on a bit thick. Referring to a rainbow that appeared over Beijing upon Yellen’s arrival, Premier Li Qiang told Yellen that the U.S. and China can see “more rainbows” after a period of “wind and rain.” With the Chinese economy staggering badly, and the U.S. and its allies moving to “de-risk,” or reduce their reliance on China, Xi and his team seem to be in the mood to chat, charm, and change minds.
But these efforts should not be taken to mean that Xi accepts Biden’s two-track template for their relationship. Rather, Xi seems to believe the very opposite: that gentlemanly competition is not viable, and that Washington must either capitulate to Beijing’s wishes or prepare to slug things out. How Xi ultimately responds to Biden could make the difference between a Cold War-style era of great power competition–which would be bad enough–and a hot shooting war that would be catastrophic for everybody.
American foreign-policy makers too often assume that they are in the driver’s seat in U.S. relations with other nations, and that the policies of other governments are, to a great degree, a reaction to Washington’s. Obviously, any country’s foreign policy does in part respond to others–China’s included. But national leaders also have their own agendas and goals that have little or nothing to do with specific decisions made and actions taken in Washington.
Xi Jinping most certainly has an agenda of his own, and he has made no secret of it. Since taking power more than a decade ago, he has stated his goal of achieving the “Chinese Dream” of “national rejuvenation,” which means the resurrection of China’s greatness on the world stage. Getting there entails “reunification,” as the Communists call it, with Taiwan to make the nation whole, based on Beijing’s definition of its rightful borders. Xi has pledged to build China a “world-class” military to give heft to his foreign-policy aims. His government has also declared its plans to leverage state support to dominate emerging technologies, including electric vehicles and artificial intelligence. More recently, Xi has outlined his vision for a new world order that would strip international affairs of liberal values and elevate the legitimacy of authoritarian governments instead.
Throughout his tenure, Xi has pursued these goals with determination and scant regard for Washington’s opinion. He has routinely ignored Washington’s objections, voiced since the Obama administration, to his effort to lay claim to nearly all of the South China Sea, including by building military installations on man-made islands. Washington has further made clear that it views Xi’s industrial policies, which funnel large amounts of state financial support to high-tech sectors, unfair and threatening to American companies. But Xi just keeps spending. More recently, Xi has brushed off U.S. concerns about his support for Russian President Vladimir Putin and has continued to deepen ties with Moscow.
Xi has signaled that he has no intention of changing his policies in order to improve relations with the United States. Rather, Beijing’s consistent position has been that Washington is entirely to blame for rising tensions, and so repairing them is entirely America’s responsibility. “If the United States does not hit the brake but continues to speed down the wrong path,” Qin Gang, China’s foreign minister, said in March, “there will surely be conflict and confrontation.”
After Blinken’s visit last month, Xinhua, China’s official news agency, published an editorial that suggested “three R words that Washington should remember: rationality, responsibility and results.” It went on to claim that “the root cause for the downward spiral of China-U.S. relations is Washington’s misperceptions toward China, which have led to misguided China policies.” Even under the rainbow of Yellen’s meetings, Beijing continues to press Washington for concessions while offering none in return. After Yellen’s departure, China’s finance ministry issued a statement saying that Beijing “requires” the United States to “cease the suppression of Chinese enterprises” and “take concrete steps to respond to China’s major concerns in economic relations” in order to improve ties. Only three days before Yellen arrived, Xi’s government announced its own export controls on two key metals used in electronics manufacturing–hardly an olive branch.
What Xi really wants is freedom of action, unfettered by American power, rules, or criticism. Many of his policies are designed to eliminate China’s vulnerabilities to American punitive action. His military buildup has been designed specifically to counter the way that American armed forces project power. Xi’s drive for economic “self-sufficiency,” especially in crucial technologies such as semiconductors, is meant to protect China from Washington’s sanctions. When Xi told Blinken that “major-country competition does not represent the trend of the times” in their June meeting, according to the Chinese summary of the talk, he might have meant that he desires peaceful relations with the United States, but he could just as easily have been saying he doesn’t think he should have to contend with the United States as an impediment to his volition.
Beijing and Washington simply do not perceive “competition” the same way. Washington has repeatedly attempted to portray measures such as curbs on the export of certain chip technology to China, imposed last year, as targeted efforts to defend American national security that are not meant to derail Chinese development. But in Beijing, these steps are seen as no more than a global superpower exploiting its economic leverage to sustain its dominance. Qin Gang once said that Biden’s “so-called competition means to contain and suppress China in all respects.”
Xi could possibly show greater flexibility in closed-door negotiations than he has in public. Much of China’s rhetoric is aimed at a domestic audience to make Xi look like a determined defender of China’s national interests. Yet Xi has called China’s rise an “inevitability,” and he could assume that the United States (and everybody else) will eventually have to concede to China, whether they like it or not.
Beijing’s attitude raises doubts about how much can actually be achieved through dialogue, or even a softer China policy of the sort many American commentators have urged. Writing recently about tensions over Taiwan, Michael Swaine, a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, rightfully worried about the “‘tit-for-tat’ dynamic that has come to define U.S and Chinese interactions, whereby each side doubles down on what it sees as deterrence signals that in fact only serve to provoke further such signals.” He recommended that both countries take steps to defuse a possible crisis, including Washington showing its sincerity by reducing its naval transits in the sensitive Taiwan Strait. The former AIG chair Maurice Greenberg, representing a group of concerned American business leaders and policy makers, argued last year that the U.S. should build on the positive benefits of the two countries’ economic relationship to create a more constructive dialogue: “It is in our national interest, now more than ever, to do all we can to improve U.S.-China relations,” he wrote.
But whether such approaches would actually benefit bilateral relations ultimately depends on Xi’s willingness to respond in kind. So far, the Chinese leader has displayed little interest in changing his policies to accommodate Washington. There is a good chance that his current engagement with the Biden administration is little more than a fishing expedition to see what favors he might be able to extract with a few smiles and handshakes but without altering his agenda. The more consistent signals from Xi suggest that the only way to get along with China is to give in to China.
That doesn’t mean dialogue is pointless. If (or, more probably, when) a crisis erupts, an open channel of communication could help avert disaster. But more than likely, no pot of gold awaits at the end of the rainbow.